Suspense, horror films examine race in September picks

By Leonard Heldreth

This month we examine the eccentricities of European businessmen, cringe in two suspenseful films about people trapped, and explore the Amazon basin in the early 20th century.

Is Toni Erdmann the best 162-minute German comedy you are likely to see? Is it even a comedy, although it has several hilarious scenes? Certainly, it’s unique, a mixture of set pieces that are sometimes absurd, sometimes sad, and sometimes both simultaneously, as when the scantily dressed heroine embraces her father, who is completely enclosed in a hairy Bigfoot costume.

Third-time director-writer Maren Ade’s highly original film focuses on the relationship between Winfried (Peter Simonischek), a retired teacher who likes practical jokes and humorous impersonations, and Ines (Sandra Hüller), his grown daughter who is an upper-level executive for an international corporation that makes other businesses run more efficiently, often at the expense of the local workforce.

On first impression, they could not be more opposite, but one of the points of the film is that, under their carefully constructed facades, they are more alike than either would care to admit. The “Toni Erdmann” of the title is one of Winfried’s favorite impersonations.

As the film opens, three events affect Winfried: his last music student announces he no longer wants to study music; Willi, his elderly dog, dies; and he becomes concerned about his daughter’s lifestyle, especially the amount of time she devotes to her career.

Freed of most of his obligations, he impulsively decides to visit her in Bucharest, Romania, where she is preparing a plan to out-source jobs and lay off several hundred people. Is he truly concerned that she is working too hard, that she has turned herself into an automaton in order to be a successful executive (at one point he asks her, “Are you human?”), or that she has totally lost focus on what constitutes a good life? Or is he just harassing her because he is bored, showing up at her business meetings in disguise with a black fright wig, bad fake teeth, and, later, a whoopie cushion. His clothing is a cheap imitation of business wear, and he rents a Hummer to complete the illusion of eccentric businessman. At one point he pretends to be a consultant, “Toni Erdmann,” who conducts management team exercises.

The reactions of Ines and her business associates to Winfried’s shaggy impersonations are hilarious to watch. She pretends at first not to know him and later passes him off as someone she has just met. Her boss and other business associates can’t tell if he’s a total mental case or just an eccentric and perhaps powerful businessman that they shouldn’t antagonize. In either case, they go along with the impersonation, which encourages Winfried to make it more and more outrageous to the point of his pretending to be the German ambassador.

When he confesses to a lady at an Easter-egg painting party that he has lied, she says, “Of course, we know you did. I know the German ambassador.” Winfried assures her, “It’s very complicated,” apparently referring not only to his impersonation but to his relationship with his daughter, who has just given a rousing rendition of Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All.”

As the film spirals toward its conclusion, several set pieces stand out. Ines has a birthday party at her apartment, but decides to change clothes at the last minute and gets stuck half out of her dress.

When she finally gets the dress off but has to go to the door nude, she improvises, like her father, and justifies her state of undress. The reactions of people as she opens the door are priceless. In an earlier scene, as a co-worker tries to seduce her, she puts him off, saying she “might lose her bite” if she gives in. After the scene ends, you may never look at a petit four the same way again.

The ending of the film is ambiguous, when the father and daughter return together for the grandmother’s funeral. Ines seems to have accepted her father’s sense of humor, borrowing his fake teeth and scruffy hat, and he appreciates her willingness to accept him, but the very last scene hints that the acceptance may be as much an impersonation as the others running through the film.

Within the narrative arc of the movie, director Ade takes humorous aim not only at dysfunctional family relationships but at the dehumanizing effects of the modern workplace, at the way excessive job demands undercut family life, at the way Europe’s economy is draining countries like Romania for the profits of the EU, and at the way women are treated in corporate culture.

When her boss accuses her of being a feminist, Ines tells him, “I’m not a feminist, or I wouldn’t tolerate guys like you.” One might even argue that the film is its own kind of rebellion against what is expected on film, at work and out in the world.

Toni Erdmann swept every major category at the European Film Awards, and was for some time the front runner for the Oscar for best foreign film. After President Trump’s ban on visitors from Iran, the sympathy vote swung to The Salesman (see last month’s review of this Iranian film), although one could argue that it’s the less successful film. Ade’s previous two films, The Forest for the Trees (2003) and Everyone Else (2009), have not been released in the United States, although both received positive reviews. (Toni Erdmann is in German and other languages with English subtitles.)

Rumor: Three-time Oscar-winner Jack Nicholson is so impressed with the role of Winfried that he wants to come out of semi-retirement to star in an English-language remake with Kristin Wiig as his long-suffering daughter.)

Jordan Peele, the director of Get Out, is half of the “Key and Peele” comedy sketch show, and with his partner, made the action spoof, Keanu. Now Peele has gone solo. He has combined his talent for humor with his love for horror movies and his insights, as a mixed-race man, into the political situation in America today to make a scary film that highlights racism among the white, moneyed class.

Peele said in an interview, “It was very important to me for this not to be about a black guy going to the South and going to this red state where the presumption for a lot of people is everybody’s racist there. This was meant to take a stab at the liberal elite that tends to believe that ‘We’re above these things.’”

As James Baldwin pointed out (check last month’s review of I Am Not Your Negro), the most insidious racism is often the most difficult to identify and eliminate; sometimes the individual does not even realize that he or she is being racist.

Peele’s movie operates on several levels. In the plot the racism is overt, as white people find a new and creative way to exploit blacks. But also throughout the film are less obvious comments and situations, ones that would not have occurred if the interaction were between two people of the same race.

Would a white man feel obligated to announce his support for Obama if he were talking to another white person? Would he tell about how his father ran in the 1936 Olympics where Jesse Owens “put Hitler in his place?” But when a white person talks to a black person, these are ways of establishing rapport, of verifying liberal values.

Peele’s movie also functions as a traditional genre horror film, drawing especially from The Stepford Wives and similar films, but having a black man as the hero, who has to flee the whites who have plans for his body.

The film opens with a black man walking down a street in an affluent suburban neighborhood, telling his friend on the phone that he is lost (“the streets all look alike”) but otherwise okay. He doesn’t see the car that goes by, u-turns, and glides slowly up behind him. Before he can react, he’s captured, dumped into the trunk, and the car disappears into the night.

The film then cuts to the major plot—the visit of Chris Washington (British actor Daniel Kaluuya) and his girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams of “Girls”) to meet Rose’s wealthy parents. She has not told them Chris is black, but she assures him that it won’t matter at all.

On the way to the estate in the country, the car hits a deer, and the policeman who investigates asks to see Chris’s driver’s license, even though Rose was driving. She defends him against what she sees as a racist request, but Chris shrugs it off and passes over the document.

When the couple reaches the family home, Rose’s prediction proves accurate. Her parents, Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy (Catherine Keener), welcome Chris literally with open arms. “We’re huggers,” her father confides. Yet, racial tension is in the air as the parents keep going out of their way to defuse it. Missy, a psychotherapist, offers to hypnotize Chris to help him quit smoking, but he declines.

The strangeness Chris senses is amplified when he meets the only other two blacks in the area, a groundskeeper named Walter (Marcus Henderson) and a housekeeper named Georgina (Betty Gabriel). Both keep Chris at an emotional distance and sometimes exhibit the quality of androids rather than people.

Adding to the peculiarity is Rose’s odd brother (Caleb Landry Jones), who keeps urging Chris to work out more and build some muscle to cash in on his “genetic heritage.” The other important character is Chris’s buddy Rod (LilRel Howery), a TSA Agent whom he talks to by phone and who is taking care of Chris’s dog.

The next day brings a crowd of wealthy white people arriving in expensive black cars and SUVs because Rose had forgotten that her family always hosted a picnic on this weekend. Chris’s isolation in the sea of white faces becomes even more extreme, as the visitors put on their best liberal manners but also compliment his physique, and one elderly lady feels his biceps.

Also in attendance is the young black man from the opening sequence (Keith Stanfield), now accompanying a woman 30 years older than he is. Moving zombie-like, he reacts only when Chris’s camera flash goes off in his face, and he shouts at Chris to “Get Out!”

That night the mystery of the servants is revealed, as is the threat to Chris, and the rest of the film deals with his attempt to escape the family’s plans and be one of the few black men to survive the required ending of a horror film.

The acting is solid across the board, and the photography and sound tracks are equally good. Get Out works as a chilling horror film, as an examination of submerged racism in affluent America, and as a film with quantities of embedded humor and jokes, as might be expected from a comedian as director.

It’s a fresh combination that should appeal to a large audience, despite its “R” rating, unusual among horror films.

Three young people in Detroit are systematically robbing houses using the security information from a business owned by one of their fathers. They usually follow rules: they deliberately keep the amount stolen under $10,000 and they do not take cash. All rules, however, go out the window when they learn of a blind veteran who received a large cash settlement which is believed to be in his house in an isolated neighborhood.

Rocky (Jane Levy), a young woman, wants the money so that she and her daughter can escape her mother’s domination and go to California. Money (Daniel Zovatto) is Rocky’s boyfriend, and is in the robbery business for the bucks. Alex (Dylan Minnette) comes closest to being a decent person, but he is in love with Rocky and would like to accompany her to California.

The fourth character is the Afghan war veteran whose house is being robbed (Stephen Lang, Avatar); identified only as “the blind man,” he knows his fortified house, complete with resident Rottweiler, and has forgotten none of his killing skills.

The three robbers manage to enter the house, but when the veteran wakes up and comes after them, they find that getting back out is more difficult than entering. The title refers to the veteran’s ability to identify their locations through the slightest sound, and he shoots in the direction that he hears.

The suspense ratchets up as the robbers find the money and try to escape, but they encounter one obstacle after another. Then they find what the veteran has in his basement, and they know he will not let them leave alive.

Add in the dog, which has awoken from its drugged sleep, and the tension is extreme, especially in a scene involving the dog and the getaway car. As the film progresses, the audience’s sympathy moves from one side to the other, tending to favor the veteran in the first part of the film and the robbers in the second part, after they enter the basement.

There are no innocent characters in this film, most of which was filmed in Hungary, with only the exterior shots of distinctive Detroit ruins actually shot there.

Anyone looking for a tense 88 minutes should enjoy Don’t Breathe, which was directed by Uruguayan director Fede Alvarez, who did the recent Evil Dead remake. Unlike that film, the blood and violence are kept to a minimum in Don’t Breathe.

Writer-director James Gray’s film about famous explorer Lt. Col. Percy Harrison Fawcett is based on David Grann’s 2009 book of the same title. Gray condenses Fawcett’s several expeditions to three and includes scenes showing Fawcett’s activities in World War I, especially the futility and degradation of that adventure.

Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), like most Victorian explorers, was primarily looking for fame and glory. Needing a boost to escape his background (an officer says, “He’s been rather unfortunate in his choice of ancestors”), he accepts a mission in 1906 to explore some unknown areas of Bolivia for the National Geographic Society. There, with his close army comrade Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson, barely recognizable behind a thick beard and wire spectacles), he encounters what he thinks are artifacts and possibly ruins from a great city which he calls “Z”; he also catches the itch that drives him most of his life: to prove that a major civilization had once existed in the jungle. In the film, this urge takes him back to the Amazon in 1912 on a trip financed by James Murray (Angus Macfadyen), a wealthy egoist who brings more hardship to the expedition than he does help, but Fawcett feels he has come closer to Z.

While racist and contradictory, as most Victorian explorers were, Fawcett was changing his opinions about the natives that he encountered, and this gradual change ties the elements of the film together. He’s not a modern man, but he is developing a different outlook from that of the provincial aristocrats that he has left in London.

The film’s third expedition in 1925 emphasizes not only Fawcett’s obsession with finding the city but also highlights what has been a major theme from the opening shots: how did the explorers cope with leaving their families for years at a time while pursuing their dreams? Fawcett’s wife, Nina (Sienna Miller) wants to accompany him on the second expedition, but, of course, he vetoes it. On this last expedition, his eldest son Jack (Tom Holland), now 20, accompanies him, but the expedition simply disappear into the Amazon jungle and are never seen again.

The Lost City of Z is visually impressive, the jungle as dank and impenetrable as one would imagine, but it’s more than an adventure story. It’s a look into the mind and motivations of one of the 20th century’s major explorers.

Editor’s note: All films reviewed are available as DVDs from local stores. Reviews of earlier films cited can often be found at marquettemonthly.org

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