Jordan Peele On His Horror Movie Get Out At Sundance

Sundance premiered Jordan Peele’s horror movie Get Out as a surprise midnight screening. Daniel Kaluuya plays a man visiting his girlfriend (Allison Williams)’s parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) when he discovers a terrifying secret. All the black people in their house and town are acting like Stepford wives, and Peele said that was no coincidence.

Get Out Sundance Q&A

Get Out Sundance Q&A

“You can see the dozen influences, my favorite horror movies that went into this,” Peele said at the Q&A. “This was something I felt like was really a missing piece in the genre. One of my favorite movies is The Stepford Wives obviously. It’s a real classic and the way it dealt with the social issues in regards to gender was something I just thought that’s proof you can pull off a movie about race that’s a thriller that’s just entertaining and fun.”

Fans were surprised when the trailer to Peele’s very serious horror movie dropped. This was a passion project for him. “I came up with the script probably about eight years ago actually,” Peele said. “The idea started when Barack Obama and Hillary were going up against each other for the Democratic nomination. All of a sudden, the country was focused for a second on black Civil Rights and women’s Civil Rights movements and where they intersect. There was this question of who deserves to be president more? Who’s waited long enough. Of course it’s an absurd thing that Civil Rights are even divided. It should be one Civil Right. That was when the germ of the idea that hit me, because like I said, The Stepford Wives. That marinated for a long time and then probably wrote the script three years ago.”

That said, horror is not too much of a stretch from comedy. “Horror and comedy are very linked to me,” Peele said. “There are some obvious reasons. They’re both about getting a physical reaction and pinpointing when that physical reaction happens. You have to know where your audience is. It’s just one is a laugh, one is a scare. Some of my favorite horror movies, especially in an experience like this, really truly scary scene can get everybody to laugh. I was very eager to use the things that I’ve learned in comedy for horror which is my favorite genre.”

The theme of minority oppression is as relevant as ever. “For a while, when we had a black president and we were living in this post-racial lie, this whole idea like we’re past it,” Peele said. “For me and for many people out there, all black people know no, there’s racism. I experience it on an everyday basis. The party scene is kind of how we experienced racism for a while. This movie was meant to reveal there’s this monster of racism lurking underneath some of these seemingly innocent conversations and situations. It’s been fascinating watching the last few years develop because now the movie’s coming out in a very different America than it began. I think it’s more important now. I think it’s far more interesting now. I really respect Universal for having the f***ing balls to lean into this.”

The racism Peele wanted to explore was more subtle than blatant KKK racism. “It was very important for me for this movie not to be about the black guy going to the south and going to this red state where the presumption for a lot of people is that everybody’s racist there,” Peele said. “This was really meant to take a stab at the liberal elite that tends to believe we are above these things. Brad and Catherine I thought of them as the perfect in laws. If you could imagine in-laws besides my real ones, if you could imagine in-laws that would be perfect to walk into, that would be them. The character that Brad developed was so magnetic. There’s so much he gave us that couldn’t make it into the film that is just absolutely hysterical.”

A supporting character and comic relief is a TSA agent (LilRel Howery). This is not the first time Peele has celebrated the TSA. “I’m expecting TSA love. I did a sketch on Key & Peele where we were Al Quaeda huddled up in a cave. The whole bit was, ‘If only it wasn’t for the brilliant TSA and their regulations, I could bring a knife bigger than this and we would have them.’ For a while there I was afraid I’d go up to the TSA line and somebody’d be like, ‘Whoa buddy, better watch yourself now.’ I talk about this my wife all the time. It’s like now I’m golden. And LilRel Howery, that motherf***** can fly for free.”

Patton Oswalt was in the audience for Get Out and raised his hand to ask Peele a question. First he joked, “I just gotta tell you that a bunch of us were live Periscoping this and the comments were amazing.”

Then Oswalt got serious. “Be excited,” Oswalt said. “You made a great film, man.”

Get Out opens February 24.

Zoe Lister-Jones Used All Female Crew To Make Band-Aid

After the premiere of Band-Aid, which she wrote and directed, Zoe Lister-Jones took the stage at Sundance and introduced her crew. The entire behind the scenes team of Band-Aid was made up of women. Lister-Jones has frequently partnered with men, including Daryl Wein who makes a cameo in Band-Aid and executive produces still. Lister-Jones just wanted to use the opportunity of her first film to create positions for women in the industry.

“Hiring all women was incredible,” Lister-Jones said. “It is not an indictment of men by any means. For me it was just about creating opportunities for women in departments where they’re not often given them and also fostering an environment where we could be our most confident and creative selves.”

Band-Aid stars Lister-Jones and Adam Pally as a married couple struggling to recover from a family loss. They turn their fights into songs which actually improves their marriage, and makes the audience laugh. Lister-Jones continued to explain how much something as simple as giving women crew jobs on a film set can do for equality.

“I do think that regardless of whether or not it’s intentional, we are living in a patriarchy,” she said. “That’s intentional but the men who are brought up in this patriarchy, I think they don’t even realize when it can be difficult for a woman’s voice to be heard when she is so under represented. So I wanted to just subvert that system and make sure every woman’s voice was heard.”

Sundance Review: Burning Sands

Last year, the Sundance Film Festival premiered Goat, a sobering tale of fraternity hazing. There is surely more than one story of hazing and pledging, and Burning Sands tells another one from a unique perspective, and a bit more subtlety than Goat.Burning Sands

Zurich (Trevor Jackson) is pledging Lambda Lambda Pi with four others (five before one quit). Over the course of Hell Week, they jump at the beck and call of the Lambda brothers, enduring physical beatings and sexual temptations, neglecting his schoolwork and girlfriend.

At first I thought the day of boot camp workouts in the woods was fairy mild hazing. It’s tough but at least it’s exercise. Pretty soon the brothers are punching and kicking the pledges and there’s just no need for that, although I bet drill sergeants in basic training do it too. I always thought it made the leadership seem weak if they needed to be the inflicted of punishment to feel someone was loyal to them. Real loyalty isn’t contrived like that.

But it’s also clear what the appeal for Zurich and the pledges are. Zurich wants to achieve what his father didn’t. Square (DeRon Horton) just want to get laid in college which is totally healthy. We also gather the lingo like pledges are called mutts to further demean them.Burning Sands

What’s most insidious about Burning Sands is how smart the Lambdas are. This is a post hazing world where they know how not to get caught. No serious beatings, just gradual ones but those add up to potentially major health problems. This is also set a Frederick Douglas University, drawing parallels between slave driving tactics and a black fraternity using those very tactics to control their own.

While some of the story beats may be familiar, particularly the tests Zurich fails in his relationships and the false hope he has in certain allies, you can feel Burning Sands is a heartfelt story. Writer/director Gerard McMurray has compassion for these kids and a passion for shining light on these abuses. He’s definitely one to watch.

The cast shines too. These are breakthrough roles for Jackson and Horton. The women come off well too. Toya (Nafessa Williams) is playing her role as sexpot to help young men come of age but not demeaning themselves or others. Rochon (Imani Hakim) is so lovely I can’t believe Zurich would risk losing her, but she’s right to set boundaries. Angel (Serayah) gets to show her intelligence in the classroom.

I hope Netflix’s strategy of premiering movies at Sundance works. They deserve the attention this forum brings and it’s good to see the Netflix bumper on the big screen.

Sundance Review: Walking Out – Cold Mountain

Up front, a movie about a father making a man out of his son by teaching him to hunt in the woods was probably never going to fully touch my soul. A walkabout, vision quest or coming of age tale works for me but I so don’t relate to outdoorsmen. Bravo to them though and certainly seeing Matt Bomer get rugged is a captivating change of pace.

David (Josh Wiggins) visits his father Cal (Bomer) for this family tradition, as flashbacks reveal Cal’s father (Bill Pullman) teaching Cal the same lessons, like tracking moose and gutting your kills. Then disaster strikes and David has to rescue Cal and get them both to safety.

Survival is more of a compelling adventure to me than hunting animals for sport or education. They do eat the animals so it’s not a waste, and I understand the values of learning basic skills that modern society takes out of your hands. But for me, I watch the first half of Walking Out as an observer. The second half I’m more invested in hoping this kid and his dad don’t die over this abstract concept of learning primitive skills.

David’s skills actually become more valuable than Cal’s at this point. That’s rewarding to show that society gave him some valuable strengths. Certainly the notion of David carrying his father is meaningful.

The scenery is beautiful. Filmmakers Alex and Andrew J Smith really captured the beauty and deadliness of the wilderness. Bomer and Wiggins give heartfelt, emotional performances so Walking Out is recommendable for fans of the actors or the genre of wilderness survival.

Sundance Next Fest Review: Goat

Every January I go to the Sundance Film Festival to discover the exciting new films of the year, and every summer Sundance puts on Next Fest to bring a little Sundance to Los Angeles. This year I caught up on the film Goat which I missed in January.

Brad (Ben Schnetzer) survives an attack after a high school party one night. When he makes it to college and pledges the same fraternity as his brother Brett (Nick Jonas), everyone expects Brad to fail the hazing.

Goat paints an appropriately ugly portrait of male-dominated party culture in both high school and college, pressuring guys to drink and exploiting women. It’s all so aggressive, who exactly is having fun here? Even the alphas seem stressed out struggling to top themselves and “win” some sex for the night, just so they can start all over the next night.

Perhaps the unspoken subtext is that none of these characters, not even Brad, have any direction outside of partying. There are no scenes in class and nobody’s major is ever mentioned. The cast portrays it well and you believe they are soulless college fraternity boys, or that Brett has a conscience but he’s stuck there. Only James Franco, in a cameo, gets the ridiculous male bravado and seems to be spoofing it. I actually knew some wonderful fraternity members who included me even though I didn’t end up pledging, but I understand they are not the subject of this movie. If the shoe fits…

The hazing isn’t terribly shocking insofar as the stunts to which they subject the pledges. A couple of them may be clever and the ones that are crossing the line are shown to be pushing everyone too far. What shocked me is the amount of alcohol they force pledges to consume. It looks like enough to kill a large mammal let alone a college freshman.

You get the sense that each generation has escalated the hazing a little bit further, to force the incoming class to suffer just a little bit more to earn the same spot they earned. It’s long since become too dangerous for the “brotherhood” they’re offering, and yet you can understand why it’s still appealing to young boys. Brad’s roommate Will (Danny Flaherty) would do anything for the sex that’s available in a fraternity, and nowhere else. Even Brad does it to live up to family expectations, or just to prove he’s not weak.

But seriously who the f*** were their parents naming their kids Brad and Brett? It took me 70 minutes to figure out they were different names. I wrote down Jonas was Brad, but then he called his brother Brad so I wrote that Schnetzer was Brad. But then it sounded like he was calling Jonas Brad, so which one is Brad? Check out the big brain on Brad!

Goat is a solid depiction of the hazing system with great performances from the cast portraying both ends. The film is perhaps not as surprising as it believes it is, as there is a dramatic pause after a reveal of which the audience should already be way ahead. It’s not a big mystery though so the point is the drama of what the characters endure, and Goat succeeds in that. Goat will be in theaters, On Demand and Digital HD on September 23.

Sundance NextFest Review: Too Legit Is Legit Satire

When I’m at The Sundance Film Festival, I don’t usually see short film blocks because there are too many features to see. It’s hard for readers to find shorts after film festivals too. Sundance Next Fest offered me a chance to see some of the shorts I’ve been missing out on, and Too Legit was so good I have to put it on your radar to seek out wherever it may be available after Sundance.

In a world where Rep. Todd Akin was right and women’s bodies do shut down pregnancy in cases of “legitimate rape,” Sully (Zoe Kravitz) tries to determine whether her rape was legitimate or whether she’ll need to get an abortion on her own. This is a scathing satire of rape culture, and jus to be clear, it’s science-fiction. Akin was way wrong. Writer/director Frankie Shaw has a scathing, biting voice.

The fact that every character plays rape culture straight shows how absurd the discussion of rape in society is, only in real life we allow these ridiculous statements to continue. Sully said no but even she questions whether she “asked for it”  or not, because of all the social pressures to make her feel like she did. And then, if only she can convince her own body she was raped, nature will take its course.

Sully ends up negotiating with her attacker Mike (Nate Corddry), who expresses all the male entitlement as a melodramatic victim. The film addresses all the rape myths by way of adult characters sympathizing with the wrong party, but playing it like they’re in a serious drama which is actually the world women are living in writ large.

Teresa Palmer plays Sully’s supportive friend who introduces all the concepts of legitimate rape/shutting down and she’s an exquisite straight woman. Clark Gregg plays a doctor and Lauren Weedman plays a dean and you can feel all the anger the actors and filmmakers have about injustice channeled into these satirical representations of the rape culture establishment. Kravitz plays the drama of her character looking for answers to something that should never be questioned in a just world.

This is how great satire works. We can laugh at how ridiculous an extreme scenario is and perhaps channel some tragic social norms into something positive. A rapist might be too far gone to ever get the message, but it can reach the people who don’t understand why it’s a problem. Normally it takes suffering personally to force anyone to reconsider their prejudices. Hopefully a film like Too Legit can make the world a more compassionate place with no personal suffering required.

Sundance Review: Operation Avalanche Is Sound Found Footage

I once joked that the Paranormal Activity sequels should keep going back in time, making an 8mm silent film and then ultimately Daguerrotype. I was joking about the Daguerrotype although I challenge Jason Blum to do it. A silent Paranormal Activity would’ve been cool though. Well, they didn’t do that either, but at least now the found footage genre has gone back in time enough to use pre-VHS materials, and it works for Operation Avalanche.

Owen Williams and Matt Johnson (themselves) are CIA agents tasked with making a moon landing movie, in case Apollo 11 doesn’t actually land. As part of their mission, they infiltrate NASA undercover, and research Stanley Kubrick’s techniques from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The ‘60s era footage effect makes Operation Avalanche look better than modern found footage movies. Matt and Owen want the film of their findings to be good so they can be promoted in the CIA. It’s really fun to see the Lionsgate logo in Academy Ratio black and white 16mm. Even when they get better cameras and the bulk of the film is in 1.85:1, the saturated colors give it a beautiful old school film look, even if it is a digital effect of degrading the image.

Because filmmaking is the actual mission, there’s no need to remind us all the time that they’re filming. Besides, they’re undercover so no one else is supposed to know. Matt is overeager but he’s not the typical douchebag that found footage movies need in order to work. Only a douchebag would keep filming in an emergency, but when the emergency is a NASA coverup you would keep filming to expose them. At one point he does say he doesn’t care how much film they burn, but I took that more as a lovely reminder of the finite quality of pre-videotape materials.

Operation Avalanche is a love letter to Kubrick’s visual effects, and they got a good Kubrick lookalike and a fun reference to room 237. Johnson and Williams have good comic timing, in their delivery and their editing.

They take the conspiracy theory seriously though. They’re not making fun of people who think the moon landing was faked. They’ve actually suggested that they did such a good job faking it, that the mere suggestion of a conspiracy would make one sound crazy.

There is a behind the scenes story of how Williams and Johnson stole shots at NASA, but the film doesn’t need that gimmick to work. It’s also not in your face about where they filmed. They made the location part of the story, not vice versa. Most importantly, they made a good movie, so you won’t be left lamenting that the making of the film overshadowed the film itself.

Sundance Review: Morris From America Shows Great Parenting

I had hoped Morris from America was the Morris Chestnut story. A man can still dream. Markees Christmas IS Morris Gentry, an American living in Germany with his father Curtis (Craig Robinson). Displaced from his home, Morris has culture shock to deal with on top of regular teenage problems.

Morris is an aspiring rapper, but he seems more content to say shocking things than hone his craft. I get that. When I was a teenage film critic I had a tendency to make the most salacious comments over the more nuanced, in depth one. It’s the path of an artist to find their real voice.

Curtis is a really great father. His guidance ranges from practical things like leaving a note (five seconds saves hours of worry and future trouble) to recognizing when he has to let Morris make his own mistakes because there are some lessons you just can’t teach someone secondhand. When Morris makes excuses, Curtis says, “I believe that could be true.” What a wonderful way to empower your child while still maintaining parental authority. He handles Morris’s teacher and Morris’s offensive rap lyrics well. The teacher is overstepping to play armchair psychologist, but Curtis knows what trouble Morris could get into, and he’d rather push Morris to be a more truthful artist.

There is a tiny bit of abstract expression in writer/director Chad Hartigan’s film. Morris sees the people in a museum nodding to the beat of the music only he is listening to. That is the only time I caught something surreal. It’s welcome and appropriate, and maybe could have used more.

There’s also a bittersweet puppy love story when Morris falls for an older girl, Katrin (Lina Keller). Christmas gives an endearing performance, even when he’s making mistakes that make us cringe. Keller walks a fine line of stringing him along but making it clear where her affections lie.

Morris From America is a strong film about fathers and sons. Robinson shows he’s got heart and soul, while Christmas is instantly relatable in his very first movie.

Sundance Review: The 4th Is Its Own Fault

I’m sure the people who made and are depicted in The 4th are lovely, humble people making a self-aware comedy. However, there is a chance that they are as oblivious as the characters they depict, and they think this is all a series of comic misadventures. It is not. Everything that happens in The 4th is a result of bad decisions and immature behavior.

Jamie (Andre Hyland, who also wrote and directed) needs to buy lighter fluid for his 4th of July barbecue. He doesn’t have much money because he’s waiting for a check and he’s behind on rent because of it. As soon as he’s left the house, Jamie is getting in trouble with his bicycle destroyed, stranded by an Uber driver, nearly arrested and losing the lighter fluid.

So let me start from the beginning. Jamie’s bike is destroyed by an angry motorist to whom he talked back. It’s not Jamie’s fault that the motorist went overboard, but part of being an adult is learning not to provoke the wrong people. Actually, child or adult, part of being a human being is learning not to provoke people unnecessarily.

It’s true, the Uber driver was stuffy, but he’s not wrong. When a sketchy passenger gets in your car, you protect yourself. It’s the risk you take when you drive for a ride service, and the risk we take when we take one, but why argue? You’re going to teach the Uber driver how to provide better service? Just handle your own sh** and be done. When you’re depending on someone else for service, it doesn’t serve you to be entitled. The customer is always right, but if the service provider decides not to serve us, who really wins there?

Likewise, rules may be annoying but not worth fighting over a nuisance. Way to challenge the oppressive structure of “no bikes in the store” and “bathrooms for customers only.” In the time it took to argue about it, you could’ve bought something cheap and used the restroom. Even with the police, don’t argue. Let it get sorted out. That way they feel empowered having done their job, and you still win when you’re vindicated.

All of these problems could have been solved by simple adult behavior, like carrying enough cash to get through an emergency. Even $20 would suffice. I get it, some people are struggling and don’t even have that. They probably shouldn’t leave the house at all then. Be glad you’re not homeless and don’t push your luck. Jamie can’t even cook for himself, which is probably supposed to be funny. Fine, eat expired frozen meat. The sequel can be The 5th when they’re all in the hospital with e coli.

Jamie also hangs around a lot of people who cause more trouble by making bad decisions and not following directions. That’s another part of being an adult, choosing the right people to be in your life. You don’t want to be heartless but some people can be a liability. In a way there’s a sense of tragedy that this is all they have, a pathetic barbecue on a day off. The film doesn’t take that angle though. We are supposed to consider Jamie the underdog hero trying to make everything right.

As indie improv movies go, The 4th is stronger than most. The dialogue does forward the plot and they even get some funny lines out of it. So that’s one thing they can do right, articulate their own sense of entitled injustice. I suppose I have to admire some of the elaborate Rube Goldberg antics that escalate. It’s just the fundamental concept makes it hard for me to be amused.

Sundance Review: Frank & Lola and a Troubling Perspective

Rape is a difficult subject in real life. We’ve seen how real public cases have handled victims insensitively. It’s a difficult subject in movies for different reasons because it could be an exploitive or manipulative ploy. Yet it’s an important subject for us to discuss so it’s great when there are movies that can promote sensitivity. Filmmakers just have to be careful, and the perspective Frank and Lola took makes me mad.

Las Vegas chef Frank (Michael Shannon) is dating recent grad Lola (Imogen Poots). One night she cheats on him but he takes her back. So she opens up to him that she was raped while studying in Paris and the trauma has caused her to act out among other coping mechanisms. Frank becomes obsessed with her attacker and stalks him.

There’s no right way for a person to deal with rape and it’s valid to explore a victim’s struggles. It shouldn’t be for a man to play hero though. And it is valid to explore what a man goes through when the woman he loves has been raped. It affects him too, but adding a story where he feels betrayed makes it all about him. At least if he were victim blaming we’d know how to judge him. The film is either using rape to say a man should be suspicious of a woman claiming to be raped, or that rape is just a plot device to explore his feelings.

Frank gets embroiled in a mystery when her attacker shows him evidence of consensual sex. The film can dabble in manipulation and unreliable narrators, but make no mistake the following things are not open to interpretation. These are spoilers because they have to be. I’m not going to protect the movie’s minor twists and let people misconstrue them.

Lola was raped. The attacker who got her to participate in further sex games is proven to be a liar. That means when Lola tells the complete story of the first rape, that is the film telling us that is the truth. This is structurally how movies reveal their truths. Short of showing a flashback, they let characters confess in the third act. And thank God it was the truth because if the writer/director wanted to tell a story about a woman who pretends to have been raped that would reinforce even worse myths about not believing women who have a hard enough time telling their story in the first place.

Lola does like rough sex, but is very clear that it was the rape that made her begin exploring alternative sex practices. This is fairly common among victims of sexual assault. There are also women who enjoy rape fantasy role play without having experienced a real attack. Neither mean that a woman wants to be raped. If you think the movie was implying she liked rough sex and wanted it, I’m not going to sugar coat it. The movie explicitly says Lola developed these tastes after being traumatized. Suggesting she might have wanted it is exactly the problem with rape culture today.

Lola is not a femme fatale. She’s not manipulating Frank to get anything. She has no power, which is exactly what rape takes away. She wants his forgiveness. It makes no sense to talk about her rape for any other reason except that it’s the truth.

So the film does land on the right side of the issue but I guess what concerns me is that there is any ambiguity along the way. I’m all for subtlety in movies but maybe with rape we can’t afford to leave anything open to interpretation. The mere suggestion that the character could be lying is dangerous for all the women, and men, out there struggling with even saying they’ve been raped. And I saw firsthand how the film empowered audiences, men and women at Sundance, to blame Lola, as if it would be too hard to take if she were telling the truth. Welcome to the world of rape culture.

Shannon and Poots are good in the roles, and the dialogue is strong too. It talks about sex frankly without being vulgar, and Shannon giving a look with minimal dialogue says it all. That why the message is so troubling. It’s in a compelling package, but it’s ultimately using Lola’s rape to make Frank feel persecuted or validated for defending her. You can make a movie about an unsupportive reaction to rape. That’s vital too but there’s no place for questioning whether the woman is telling the truth.

There have been good movies from male writers and directors about both the male and female experience of rape. Bad Lieutenant, The Accused, A Clockwork Orange. I wouldn’t even include Dragon Tattoo but it can be done. The Perks of Being a Wallflower had a sensitive and empowering take on a character who’d overcome sexual abuse. An artist can say whatever he or she wants about rape, but if he leads it into ambiguity or objectification, I feel that’s misguided and potentially dangerous. It would be like making a movie that questions whether the Holocaust happened. It’s just wrong.