Friday, February 24, 2017

Bitter Harvest and Get Out


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This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

Bitter Harvest is a historical drama with good intentions, but terrible execution. Set in 1930's Ukraine, it tells the story of the relatively unknown holocaust known as the Holodomor, which was, essentially, the state sponsored starvation of millions of Ukrainians, as led by Joseph Stalin.

The story is told through the eyes of Yuri (Max Irons), an aspiring artist in small Ukrainian village. After the state takes over the village's land, via murder and intimidation, Yuri decides to leave his love Natalka (Samantha Barks) and his domineering grandfather (Terence Stamp), and get some state-sponsored art education in Kiev. Once he learns that the art is not only sponsored by the state, but also dictated by it, he decides to go back home, to his increasingly desperate family.

Director George Mendeluk begins the film with some lovely imagery, presenting early 20th century Ukraine as a colorful land straight out of a fairytale. But once the drama gets heavy, the film's use of English-speaking actors, digital cinematography, and simple sets gives it all a cheap, made-for-cable movie feel. And not an American made-for-cable movie. More like something you might stumble on while in a hotel somewhere in Europe, as you flip through the 10 available channels.

The script and hammy acting certainly don't help. Gary Oliver plays Stalin like a cartoon villain who, if his mustache were just a little longer, would certainly be twirling it before screaming lines like, "DAMN THOSE UKRAINIANS!" Equally silly is Tamer Hassan as a Commissar whose main job seems to be kicking villagers. He also decides to turn Yuri's wife into a sex slave, and all of his behavior may or may not stem from him having a bad mother, (it's a little confusing).

It's too bad Bitter Harvest is a failure, as it's a pretty good time to be telling a story about Russia, and Ukraine, and state-sponsored atrocities, especially an atrocity that many in power continue to deny even happened.


If it's well-timed social commentary you're looking for, I can't recommend the horror movie
Get Out enough. Written and directed by Jordan Peele, who is best known for his work as one half of the comedy team Key & Peele, it will probably end up being the best horror movie of the year, and easily one of the best of the past five years.

Starring Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams as Chris and Rose, the story follows the couple as they visit Rose's family for the first time. Meeting the parents is always tense, but Chris has the added anxiety of being a black man meeting his white girlfriend's family, who don't know beforehand that he's black.

Despite assurances that her family is the furthest thing from racist, ("My father would have voted for Obama a third time if he could have, and he'll let you know it," Rose tells Chris), Chris still can't help but feel a little put off by the family's intense openness. In addition, the live-in house and groundskeepers, who are also black, seem a little off. And when the weekend also turns out to be the same weekend as an annual family party, things get really weird.

This is Jordan Peele's directorial debut, which is pretty astounding; he's got a natural gift for horror. He's admitted it's his favorite movie genre, and nods to classics like Rosemary's Baby and The Stepford Wives are peppered throughout. But Peele's greatest contribution to the film is humor. He recognizes that humor is one of the most important aspects of a horror movie. Horror without humor is just torture.

There are some plot holes towards the end, but really, most horror movies suffer from those if given any real scrutiny. I'll forgive Get Out those if only for its opening scene, which is both a classic horror movie opening, and a perfect commentary on the current state of male blackness in America.

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