Skip to content

Us (2019); And Why I’m Not a Fan

March 23, 2019

I’m attempting to decipher my current rambling mind about my first impression on Jordan Peele’s highly anticipated sophomore film, Us. I almost feel at a loss for words. I have so much to stay about this but nothing is coming to the surface in one cohesive thought. It’s just words bumbling around into one another attempting to latch on to what’s familiar enough to sound cohesive. I didn’t not like it, but damn I didn’t enjoy it either and that makes me sad. Insatiable even. I’m craving a release from the tension I built for Us, even when I proactively told myself before—and during it—to curb my expectations: be present, witness what’s unfolding without attachment…what I try to remind myself in basic day to day existence. Still, I couldn’t help but want more from the entire experience, all the way up through to the credits (which btw big ups to the font designer there).

Now I don’t think the desire I had for more is unreasonable. Peele is a competent and intelligent writer-director with great instincts. These instincts are prevalent throughout his career and surfaces on occasion throughout Us, but there were multiple scenes that forced me to confront the fact that maybe the hype surrounding his talent was a bit premature. During a particular scene in which a car is used for blocking a mirrored cat and mouse chase, the camera moves slowly with the showdown and a character stops to crouch down disappearing out of sight from her mouse while we anticipate the anxiety that should build up from this creepy moment. Yet, somehow the scene progresses without any terror or fraction of tension due to Peele’s subsequent camera angles and directorial choices for how the scene plays out. In fact, most of those instincts for capturing a truly effective and scary moment are there on the surface but they indulge themselves too much in homage or symbolism that they lack any personal defined characteristics themselves and becomes void of tension.

Many scenes play out far too long to truly be effective. When the slasher fans in the audience are treated to gory moments and kills, Peele only gives us quick glimpses promptly and consistently cutting away before the moment of impact. This isn’t a problem in the hands of director who knows how to make an effective gory scene without excessive gore (take moments of the chainsaw scene in Brian De Palma’s Scarface for instance). Instead, Peele’s haphazard cuts and shifts from moments of impact or heightened action pushes the viewer further away from the action, its severity, and the ultimate danger of the Wilson family.

This isn’t helpful to the story considering by the 2nd act of the film, much of the steam for truly fearing for their lives is lost as that equation gets thrown out the window. By the 3rd act, once we leave the home of the family for a different house, Peele’s use of comedy bulldozes through any moments of potential horror or even thriller. I never once truly felt that the family was in danger for their lives. Half the time they don’t even seem truly worried (see the annoying “who’s driving” scene for reference). The Wilson’s seem impervious to traditional fear and reservation about the dire situation around them, and Peele’s script has subsequent action happening at random, continually shifting the cinematic world and its own reality in the process. By the film’s climax, Peele weakly attempts to tighten the loose threads that are connecting motives and unveiling motivations but he does so with enough laxness to leave room for audience interpretation rather than using the film itself to explain the story.

In fact, my favorite part of the film was the after-movie discussion with my group of friends, where we asked questions, traded interpretations and, for me, fumbled over expressing my disappointment. I enjoyed hearing the answers to my questions which constantly made me ahh at the light bulb going off. But for every answer, there were dozens of other questions: “Well if this, then why that?” “Well yeah, but how?” or “But if that why not?” and definitely “wait, they’re doing what now?” For a good two hours after seeing this movie, I questioned myself… “am I dumb? Did I just not get it? Did having a five-month writer’s block make me forget how to analyze a movie? Did I really not get that piece of symbolism?” The jury’s out if the answer to these are all yes, because possibly. But the more I ruminate over Us, the more I see less of a sharp, creative think piece of a film and more of a bunch of great ideas and thought starters that never develops past bullet points. By the end of the film, I felt like I had M. Night Shyamalan whiplash. The last chunk of Us feels rushed, clumsy even, and almost like a “gotcha” moment. Just because certain elements foreshadowing where we end up, doesn’t mean that it makes for a cohesive story and definitely not a horrific or even thrilling one.

Regardless, the few elements that are well executed are done extremely well, particularly the original music by Michael Abels and some of Peele’s most stunning shots and use of body doubles. I can’t possibly end this piece without discussing the brilliance of Lupito Nyong’o’s performance. Her talent is pure and genuine, one that just naturally seeps out of her. Nyong’o’s skill reminds audiences that she is a thespian tried and true who can conjure emotion and new personas right before our eyes. Watching her in two wildly distinct roles interacting creates perfect book ends of her range as an actor. She’s wonderful and steals every scene she’s in. Nevertheless, while Winston Duke is charming with some of the funnier moments and the children are impressive newcomers that I’d love to see more from, Peele honestly wastes their potential by relegating them to being props and a means for Nyong’o to shine.

I’m always happy to see black faces on screen in varying genres and God bless Peele for being a black man creating a new vision, but I refuse to grade this movie on a “curve.” I know Peele has the potential to be great based on Get OutKeanu, and Key and Peele, but I’m very worried about his ability to handle other properties with care, like Candyman. My biggest fear after watching Us (and no shade or pun intended with that, just genuine concern) is that Peele won’t have the chops needed to make the upcoming Twilight Zone reboot a needed addition to the cannon. Perhaps he got too much freedom with Us to explore an extremely complicated idea. Maybe no one reiterated that to do that successfully, he you should focus more time on creating that world and not staying with the faux-home invasion angle. Perhaps this is just a sophomore slump that will progresses with his future endeavors. Either way, I thought Us was a poorly constructed horror film with very few redeeming qualities. I’m grateful for my brother’s quip when debriefing the film: “you’re not crazy. That movie sucked.”

SPOILERS: Below are a list of questions that I had while watching. Feel free to answer in the comments!

Who’s in control of this underground bunker? How do these clones exist and who’s taking care of them? Are they all evil or just soulless? If that’s the case, why did adult Red have love for her kids? What’s not stopping them from killing each other? Why harm themselves (as Red Elisabeth Moss does) yet have the capacity to work together and hold hands? Why did Red have to be evil and smile those creepy little smiles to let you know she’s the evil twin? Wouldn’t it have been more effective if it was simply clones just wanting to live a new life, no good/evil attached like in Ex Machina? The Tyler family already got killed, so why kill others who aren’t them or try to? No one else did that, did they? Aren’t all the clones just supposed to kill “themselves”? Who were they trying to prove something to, the government… if they’re killing all of their doubles? Was it drugs they were being given? How did young Red even find out the upper ground? Do they all just know they’re clones? Why did Jason walking backwards cause his clone to do that into the fire? Are all clones subject to mimicry? Where did they get those scissors???

Advertisements

His Girl Friday (1940) is Really a Drama and Not As Screwy As You Think

October 20, 2018

I’ve watched His Girl Friday dozens of times, and each time I’ve howled in laughter and felt all light and charmed afterwards. On Tuesday, I had back-to-back bombshells dropped in the middle of an attempted relaxing night, so I thought to myself, “girl, let’s chill and watch His Girl Friday for peace of mind”. That plan completely backfired. This time around, His Girl Friday was a dark and sad experience. In this time of conscious awakening where the parallels between life and art feel more prevalent than ever, that night was the first time I’ve ever seen His Girl Friday as a drama, art completely intimating life, with some comedic moments and really likable faces sprinkled throughout. It’s ability to live as either a comedic love story or a truly satirical downer is a testament to the brilliance in its all-around production: Ben Hecht’s 1928 play The Front Page and the 1931 film adaptation of the same name,  director Howard Hawks’ decision to change paper man Hildy Johnson to a woman, Charles Lederer’s brutally honest screenplay, and Rosalind Russell’s strong yet subtly stunning performance.

I know what some of you hardcore screwball fans are thinking; a subtle performance from Russell… in the most iconic screwball comedies of all time? The woman who tackles a man to the ground for a scoop on a story? Yep, that woman. There’s a moment when Russell, as Hildy, is so flustered—near panting with anxiety—that she stops a beat to realize her predicament, where her chance of comfort and peace of mind is at stake. She’s near tears at the compulsion to keep going, attempting to find her coat and hat so that she can finally leave the circus of a newsroom behind. But she’s somehow swept back into it, when all she wanted to do in the first place was to tell her conniving ex-husband that she’s about to marry someone else and leave the news world behind. It’s deeper than a career vs. marriage in Rosalind’s portrayal of Hildy. It’s reconciling one’s own destiny. Hildy’s dilemma is figuring out what will bring her true happiness: a lucrative position being a voice for the people (regardless of how delusional that truth is) or using her skills to raise new voice.

But Walter’s (Cary Grant) personal collusion knows no bounds. He knows Hildy is addicted to the glory of the news world, the fast-paced business of it all and the thrill of a good story. And here, it’s not just some story, it’s a story for the books. Earl Williams, a white mentally unstable man, has killed a black police officer in cold blood. Although his mental capacity is in question by some, the city’s mayor and sheriff will do what it takes to rule him as sane (and a Communist) so they can expedite his execution to secure the black vote for re-election. There’s a scene between the sheriff and a medical examiner discussing the politics of the situation and Earl’s execution while Earl sits exhausted and ignored in the background. This scene is frankly horrific to watch especially in contrast with today’s transparent political attempts to sway voters regardless of whose life is at stake. This type of sadistic political warfare with no regard to humanity is what disgusts Hildy. There’s a trail of broken lives this type of lying leaves in its path, and Hildy witnesses that clear as day when Mollie arrives.

An emotional wreck determined to speak truth to power, Mollie bombards the newsroom intent on correcting the defaming lies spread by the paper about her friendship with the lonely, disconnected Earl. Mollie’s anger is met with a callous disdain from the men in the newsroom. They verbally and emotionally eviscerate her until Hildy soberly escorts her out the room as Mollie yells “they ain’t human!” to which Hildy retorts, “I know, they’re just newspaper men.” After she leaves, the men are quiet. Hawks forces the viewer to sit in silence and feel the men’s shame in response. But like true “chumps,” the ring of a phone and the appearance of a potential quote resets the men to their wise cracking, jaded ways.

Watching that moment of silence, feeling it, and hearing Mollie’s cries, along with re-watching the scene between Earl, the Mayor and the psychiatrist, completely shifted the tone of the movie for me for the first time ever. I was pulled out of this fast-talking, silly “screwball” and thrown into a reality that has been going on for decades, but we’ve been too busy viewing media passively to notice or care.

Never mind the European war, we’ve got something bigger than that! … No never mind the Chinese earthquake, this is more important… Leave the rooster story alone, that’s human interest.

And then we’re hit with a weird contrast at the film’s 3rd act, when Walter and Earl have roped Hildy back into the news world. Oddly enough, Hildy becomes a gendered stereotype only when the promise of career advancement is placed in front her. It’s a stark difference from the woman we meet at the film’s start. That woman, who is two hours away from starting a life as a wife and eventual mother, is tough, strong, independent, and a step ahead of Walter’s bullshit. She can even have two separate conversations at once by phone and in person. But when the promise of career development is an option—as Walter so casually convinces her— she’s short-sighted, apologetic, pushed around, and easily manipulated. She’s foolishly ego driven, allowing Walter to convince her of a hubris filled dream. ‘You do this story, then you’ll be the talk of the town. You’ll change the world. They’ll name streets after you!’ She lights up.

It’s the American Dream. ‘The whole world will recognize me for my brilliance and the change that only I can make. I can change minds with a few written words.’ I’ve personally felt this. I do this. We all do in this in social media age, right? Hildy falls for Walter’s lies therefore falling into a stereotypical gender role in order to follow a “destined” path to achieve it. It’s her hubris—not necessarily love—that convinces her to throw an alternate life with Bruce (Ralph Bellamy) away. I never noticed any of this before any time I’ve watched His Girl Friday, but this time it was all clear as day.

Frankly, Classic Hollywood really does have a magical quality of putting rose-colored glasses over your eyes. That’s the struggle many of us who love films from the past deal with, especially when recommending them to more to modern-day minded folks. But honestly, that’s what all media does, from people feeling warm and fuzzy when singing “Pumped Up Kicks,” to families laughing with Archie Bunker of All in the Family, rather than realizing the point was to laugh at him. Sometimes deeper meanings are right in your face when engaging with art. We all just choose engage or disengage with them but sometimes subtext is hard to focus on and satire can be a dangerous tool.

Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018); And Strong, Resonating Themes Within a Weak Script

August 2, 2018

It’s been almost two months since I watched Sicario: Day of the Soldado and my brain won’t rest until I get this review out of my system. Day of the Soldado seemed to come and go from theaters without much fervor, and while it pales in comparison to its predecessor—the superior and gut-wrenching Sicario (2015)— it’s an impressive story that manages to hold its weight, although at times not so gracefully. Stefano Sollima’s sequel doesn’t match the depth of Denis Villeneuve’s original vision, but it’s a force all on it’s on like a hurricane that pounds its cyclical viewpoint of American politics into your face. Taylor Sheridan’s script is flimsy at times, causing the narrative to skip over important elements that require laser focus, but Day of the Soldado’s story foams over with anxiety and tension until you reach the momentary calm at its end.

Day of the Soldado follows two major plot points. One is the journey of Mexican immigrants crossing the border by following Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez), a teenager looking to make money as a “coyote,” a head transporter of immigrants into American soil. Meanwhile, when an American diplomat wants to start a war with Mexican cartel leaders for profit, our main focus gets set on the daughter of the cartel leader, Isabel (Isabela Moner), whose path unfortunately crosses with the renegade black ops agents from the previous film: Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) and Matt (Josh Brolin). We watch in gruesome detail how meddling into foreign politics creates a vacuum for hate and anger that keeps the cycle of violence and retaliation moving in the form of drone strikes, suicide bombings, and automatic weapons, all of which does horrific damage to homes, body parts, and buildings in the film.

I saw Day of the Soldado its opening weekend and have yet to shake it from my mind, especially as gross mistreatment of immigrants on the Mexican/American border continues to dominate news stories. While Sicario felt like an unveiling of how America negatively interferes in other country’s affairs, Day of the Soldado reveals the bloody receipts of our country’s selfish transactions in neighboring lands. It feels like rallying cry for viewers to take note and understand the brutality of our world in its current status – ISIS, Boko Haram, Libyan slave trade, etc. It also gives revealing insight into the dangers Mexican immigrants endure in attempting to cross the border into American soil. During a very rough, and extremely raw moment in American history, Day of the Soldado couldn’t have come out at a more relevant time. In fact, the synchronicity of the film’s release felt chillingly divine.

The day before I saw it, I marched with over 10k people to Atlanta’s Detention Center to raise awareness of the mass ill treatment and incarceration of Mexican immigrants and their children. I stood outside the brick-laden, barricaded building where the windows look like tiny slits where only air and sheets of paper can pass through. From inside of those slits that blocked any distinguishing features of a face or head, were the tiniest semblance of hands waving down at us out. I imagine in united support, but again the building’s façade concealed any facial features that would indicate emotion from a human being. We rallied for common sense and decency. Sure, they’re not citizens and yes they crossed over a line that some person that I’ll never meet said was illegal – but does that make them monsters? Does that justify taking their children away from them for a life of growing up lonely, confused, and angry? What do you think that anger will do to them? What do we think that separation will achieve? Will the outcome of our actions benefit America in a year or two? In 10? Are these questions even thought of or does immediately dehumanizing someone debilitate logic?

In Day of the Soldado, we watch as men and women, often older and in poor shape, cross raging tides of cold rivers on constant alert with fear of being caught by border patrol, or worse renegade bounty hunters who treat the border like a hunting excursion. These immigrants stay cramped in tight spaces and crevices. They have no idea what awaits them on the other side. They pay large sums of money to travel with no guarantee of prosperity if they make it through. These people get shuffled around like meat and treated as animals, if for nothing else but for the hope of a new life and the escape from an old one. Their lives are at risk on this journey and Day of the Soldado follows what happens when they slip and shows just how easy it is to be caught.

Sicario: Day of the Soldado unravels into a silly, weak ending that pits Del Toro’s Alejandro as a superhero. But the most poignant, haunting moment of the film is owed to the thousand-yard stare delivered by Isabela as her chapter comes to a close. In that moment, as the camera lingers on her stunned face and dead-eyed gaze, the film begs audiences to recognize the trauma our actions have on others. Whether it’s separating families under the guise of “teaching a lesson” or starting wars with the “bad guys” who may or may not have it coming to them, for every action there is an equal and opposite re-action. If Sicario: Day of the Soldado does nothing else, it reinforces that law.

SEE IT. 

Incredibles 2 (2018); And Why I Walked Out

July 2, 2018

I had about half an hour of Incredibles 2 left before the credits were set to roll. That remaining half hour was sure to tie up any loose threads that had been fraying from the opening sequence. How would Elastigirl react to Jack-Jack’s new powers… which I thought were revealed at the end of the first? Would she reveal any insight into the secrets she’s kept from her husband? Would Mr. Incredible work through his frustration of being a house-husband while his wife gains notoriety in the public eye? Who’s really behind the mask of that notorious, villainous hacker? Will Tony and Violet work out? All of these answers and more were mere moments from my grasp of knowledge. But instead of sitting through it, I left.

That’s right, I walked out of Incredibles 2. Not because I was angry, or frustrated, or thrown off by the unnecessary cursing used throughout— but because I was bored and would have much rather been taking a nap (plus MoviePass takes the pressure off feeling obligated to sit through a bland movie). I would argue that Incredibles 2 is one of the weakest Pixar films to date, and I found its noticeably cumbersome tone to be very problematic, even worrisome of what may come with future Pixar projects. Incredibles 2 is dark, tonally and physically. It feels as though it takes place in Gotham City, as Elastigirl leaves the suburbs in order to fight crime with the hopes of making “supers” legal again. Upon her arrival, smog-laced, dingy nights follow. It’s a stark contrast against the family’s temporary home complete with brightly colored interior design and sunlight that beams through the open, curtain-less windows. But those candy-colored scenes are simultaneously filled with teenage angst, frustration and stress experienced by the family adjusting to life without their matriarch. And throughout, people get shot, hurt, and killed. During a fight scene, Elastigirl even gets her ass kicked. It’s really dark.

And this time around, the film’s villain is a hacker who is using subliminal messages to brainwash the people. Incredibles 2 rings true to real threats happening in our society today. During once scene when the villain hijacks a television station, he berates the viewers by listing all the ways in which we exist as somnambulant zombies craving interaction online but not personal intimacy; we lack the desire to play games so we instead watch game shows. It’s a legit critique on American society in the age of technology, and all the while the inner world of this film is struggling with the fight of whether superheroes should stay illegal or not. Have I emphasized the fact that is a kid’s movie yet?

I came to Incredibles 2 after spending hours in the hot sun holding a sign above my head with 10,000 people in front the Atlanta Detention Center, as we protested the arrest and detainment of immigrant families who are being separated from their children. The building itself is gigantic and daunting to look at, even more so when we could see the faintest movement of bodies from the tiny slits that served as windows within those enclosed bricks separating the inside of the building from the outside world. The immigrants within those walls frantically waved their hands our way in what I can only imagine was support. The windows were so tiny, we couldn’t see faces just the movement of hands. I marched with people of all races, identities, and ages while being continuously reminded of the injustices that continue to happen under this current administration.

I left the rally wanting to let off steam. I wanted to sit back and laugh at goofy kid humor. I wanted to hear children laugh, to be reminded of a lighter, happier side of existence. Instead I got a movie riddled in adult humor and seemingly set within the confines of real life dangers. Jack-Jack serves as the film’s primary comic relief and while seeing a cute baby do silly things made me giggle, it felt like sitting in the writer’s room hearing them throw out options they thought would be funny. “Oh, what if he could turn invisible? Or what if he sneezed and had laser rocket powers? Ooo oooh, what about if he split into multiples!? Then we could sell a series of collectible Jack-Jack dolls!”

Look, I’m all for adult themes in kid’s movies, someone’s gotta teach them reality. But there are ways of doing it, ways that Pixar usually excels in. Incredibles 2 isn’t among those ways. It’s dry, flat, and poorly written. Plus, the diversity within this film is arguably worse than before, considering minorities are demoted to being background characters that only show up to help the Incredibles receive the glory. I’m sure in the end, it’s the friends and side characters that are responsible for saving the day, but the journey they take in getting to know any of those characters is nonexistent. As a whole, Incredibles 2 didn’t move the needle with the kids in my audience either, as I can count one hand the number of times I heard collective laughter. It’s an adult film masked as a kid’s movie through animation and brand name. Its brand will no doubt continue to make money, especially as Disney continues to gobble up every company it can. I just hope in the inevitable take over, audiences demand better quality over mediocre quantity and nostalgia.

AVOID IT. Wait until a DVD or streaming release for this one. 

Hereditary (2018); Where Have All The Horror Movies Gone?

June 12, 2018

The horror genre has become pretty muddled over the years. Never truly accepted and praised as a genre, critics today—and in the past for that matter—seem to be attempting to reshape horror films into something they haven’t been historically. Body horror, slashers, gruesome blood-lust, tales of the paranormal and others of this ilk don’t receive their just praise from the major media outlets that employ critics whose opinions water the Tomato Meter of Rotten Tomatoes. These days, critics only seem to be giving shine to thrillers or psychological dramas masked as horror. This misrepresentation of the genre seems to be the culprit of why truly good horror films are disappearing from the big screen only to be picked up on the small screen.

I postulate that the reason for this shifting focus within the horror genre isn’t because there’s some larger conspiracy against the genre, but because a large number of critics, and cinephiles in general from my observation, just aren’t really fans of horror. There’s nothing wrong with being an average moviegoer with your preferences set but critics who aren’t fans of the genre are the problematic ones. This lack of care for the genre as a whole results in high praise for arthouse films that wear the cloak of horror but inevitability end up being disaffecting and boring to watch. These days, the horror genre is littered with heady, art dramas masked by creepy themes instead of a cut and dry horrific situation, killer, attacker, or being that hardcore horror fans look to for fulfillment. That’s not to say that the films that receive the praise within the horror category today aren’t good, it’s just to say there is a distinction in the genre that is currently blurred.

The release of Hereditary is a prime example of these blurred lines. Marketed as “The Exorcist of this generation” and “a modern-day classic,” Hereditary is one of the few horror films (along with The Witch, Get Out, and The Babadook) that casual horror movie watchers flock to. I had more friends tell me how excited they were about this movie than I was—kudos to the fabulous marketing and that creepy ass trailer for that. “I can’t wait to hear what you think!” was the trending expression I had been hearing for weeks before finally seeing it. Immediately I tried to taper my expectations. If for nothing else, I’ve learned in the past few years that when critics fawn over a horror film, I likely won’t enjoy it. Sure, there are exceptions to this but as a horror fanatic—the dark, grungy, affecting, creepy—I recognize that critical praise over a film means it has obviously sidestepped its way outside genre as I know it.

Don’t get me wrong, Hereditary is creepy as hell. There are some truly chilling, ghastly moments that can haunt you especially if you see it in theaters. The mood and atmosphere alone is exceptional but as a story, it’s not scary in the least. Hereditary runs off the rails during its final act with little to no explanation of the events that unfolds. Fragments of horror are sporadically peppered throughout this drama about the psychological breakdown of a family already affected by mental illness. Grief and isolation are the running themes throughout that manifests into uncomfortable, chilling moments and if there’s one thing that writer/director Ari Aster does well, it’s perfect the uncanny. Aster’s work isn’t one to be downplayed. Any fear or shock that is experienced by watching this film is thanks to Aster and cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski’s mastery of light, color, and shadows.

Hereditary’s ending unfortunately falls into sheer “what the fuckery” but it’s so beautifully shot overall—with it’s perfect match cuts, drifting camera, and saturated colors— that it’s magnetic to watch, and for a second you don’t mind the dump of random, underdeveloped occurrences until the credits begin to roll. This is the bamboozlery that I believe the critics fell for: shiny, pretty, and tension heavy films in which the director and cinematographer have perfected an encompassing menagerie of color theory to make us feel even when we’re unsure why we feel. These types of films have taken over the market and proven to be much more respectable winners of the genre, even if they aren’t really “horror.”

So far, the top-rated horror films of 2018 are Hereditary, The Endless, A Quiet Place, and Upgrade. While I admit each film is good in its own right, if not just merely decent (Upgrade is amazing btw), I argue that none of these are horror films. I’d compare Hereditary to the likes of a psychological drama akin to Ordinary People or “scary movies” that focus on familial psychosis like The Babadook and Sinister. That’s not a slight. I personally enjoyed The Babadook and thought Sinister had potential (although the family drama outweighs any sense of horror).

For people who aren’t fans of the genre, sure these films may fit the mold but what about us permanent horror fans? Where are the horror films that are nods to us and not the visitors of the genre? Our films are waiting in the crevices of over-gorged options in Amazon SVOD. Ours are on platforms that are illegal. Ours are hidden in the recesses of video stores (if your area still has one that is), or plainly hidden from the masses. Hereditary is a great film but I wouldn’t say it’s a good horror film. It’s effective and enjoyable but as a horror fan forever chasing the next high of a film that will shake me to my core and give me nightmares, where is that movie in theaters? Will it be the upcoming Halloween reboot that severs the family ties of Michael Myers and return him to brainless killer out for blood? My fingers are crossed in hopes of yes because the horror genre is in desperate need of a revival.

SEE IT. But if you’re looking for a truly horrific film look elsewhere. Horror fans, what’s been your favorite horror movie in the last few years?

For the Love of Black Panther (2018)

February 18, 2018

*This post contains spoilers. You should only read this if you have seen the film*

The experience leading up to and concluding my screening of Black Panther has been one for the books. Never before has the African diaspora had a film of this budget or this stature, with a predominately black cast (not all-black, mind you) about a story told from our origins that goes into the damning effects of colonization on our people. Black Panther, as a film and an event, is a first for members of the African diaspora, and I can’t imagine another piece of work coming together in my lifetime that will have the same impact. But the success of it all makes me overjoyed at what the future may hold for black-oriented cinema. Before Black Panther, we’ve never been able to see ourselves glorified on screen in our varying shades of melanin looking amazing, kicking ass and being diplomatic leaders on this scale. If for nothing else, Black Panther is a sight to behold for providing this experience to the black community.

The resulting clamor and excitement around Black Panther has been electrifying. For the past month or so my friends and I were passing memes back and forth on how we planned to roll up to the theater together. Outfits and dashikis had been planned in advanced and tickets were bought weeks ahead of the film’s opening. When I finally showed up to theater Friday night, it was an emotional experience to see how all of it came together. I stared in awe at the throngs of black people gathered together laughing and chattering in unison having either just seen the film or leaving from it. The women in the crowds were decked out in vibrant head wraps or with their hair in its most natural state, and every man I saw looked oh so fresh and so clean. Everyone in the crowd had on some type of African inspired print that peppered my line of vision with a rainbow of beautiful colors. It was a magnificent sight to see, and I grinned in my own colorful dashiki the whole way to my seat.

Everyone in the theater buzzed with excitement and lively chatter until the movie started. Gasps and scattered claps happened on and off for a few minutes in between loud shhs at the noise during the opening sequence. These reactions were the results of pure fandom at play and it mirrored the reactions I’ve noted from classic movie fans whenever I attend a film festival: for example, at the most recent Noir City Festival in San Francisco. Fans of the noir genre show up to these festivals in droves, dressed to the nines in their best vintage 1940s gear. They clap when the title credits reveal the names of the production company and the director, and various levels of cheering takes place whenever the name and first appearance of particular actors grace the screen (Elisha Cook Jr. consistently gets the loudest claps). This reaction has always been limited to white-oriented films, where if a black character is present they are servants or workers relegated to a few lines. So, naturally it’s an overwhelming experience to see my people get the chance to partake in this ritual for people that look like us with stories related to us.

Following Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), his ex-lover Nakia (Lupita Nyong), and his loyal Wakandan people was an absolute pleasure. I loved being sucked into the world of Wakanda: a rich, technologically advanced African city cloaked to appear like an improvised country to the outside world. Even better was how Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole’s script allowed us to get to know Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), the film’s “villain”, who turns out to have a viewpoint on life much more thought provoking and worth exploring than T’Challa’s. See, T’Challa is a Prince whose father is killed, so now he must rise to the ranks of King in spite of feeling unequipped to do so. Wakanda is in flux with some of its people wanting the country to spread its wealth to surrounding parts of Africa, while others want to keep their wealth to themselves. “If you let refugees in, you bring in their problems,” T’Challa’s best friend W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) warns. Erik is an outsider who stands for the former argument and plans to use Wakanda’s wealth for his people by any means necessary. Why should Wakanda have all these resources and not spread it to its people outside of the Wakanda walls? Therein lies the battle of the film in its simplest form.

Coming out of Black Panther—after the laughs had been laughed, the cheers had been experienced, and the energy simmered—I mused on the two hours that just took place. I enjoyed every bit of Black Panther but there three main gripes I just couldn’t get past:

  1. The cinematography: Every technical aspect of this film was breathtaking: the set design, production design, costumes and makeup, hair, special effects, and its dope ass soundtrack (all hail King Kendrick)! But the cinematography was its weakest element. I say this in regard to the handful of night scenes, most notably the first few minutes of the film. Rachel Morrison’s lighting of black skin during darkly lit scenes is disappointing, especially when comparing it to James Laxon’s beautiful work in Moonlight or Toby Oliver’s in Get Out. It’s possible my theater did something “wrong” when projecting the film, but barely being able to see action and faces during darkly lit scenes was frustrating.
  2. The defeat of Erik Killmonger: Arguably the best character in the film, Erik is intelligent, passionate, and doing his cause for the good of his people. T’Challa’s fight is for Wakanda. Regardless of ideologies, by the end of the film Erik is given two options, prison or death. His decision to take death reminded me of the bad guys in the classic Hollywood period who have to pay for the crimes because the Hays Code was in place. It felt like Erik had to die because Disney ultimately owns this film and its story…which made me question whose lens is this film really being told through, Ryan Coogler’s or the almighty bank of Disney? It didn’t make sense that T’Challa, who just spent the last half of this film distraught over the fact that his father’s selfishness is ultimately the reason Eric is hellbent on destruction, would allow this man to die or even be enslaved without an attempt to rehabilitate him. My frustration over Erik’s death was largely because he was such a wonderful character (shout out to Coogler/Cole’s meaty script), but also because of the shelf-life other Marvel villains of Erik’s intelligence possess: Thor’s Loki and X-Men’s Magneto in particular. It felt like Erik had to be punished because he was too radical. T’Challa ultimately ends the film announcing that Wakanda will share their resources with the world, never mind that most of the world he’s addressing is already wealthy, developed nations. There are no reparations or specialized aid given to those who suffered the most from colonialism. T’Challa wanted diplomacy and to share Wakanda’s resources with everyone, so he’s the good guy. Erik wanted black liberation and black power, so naturally he’s the bad guy. I didn’t particularly like that they couldn’t somehow work side by side, that one ideal had to defeat the other. You can have black liberation and power without colonizing others based on race, but that wasn’t the discussion to be had here because…well Disney.
  3. Everett Ross: Am I the only one that felt super uncomfortable with how big of role this character had? Everett (Martin Freeman) is a CIA agent who becomes a key puzzle piece in the story that without, T’Challa can’t succeed.…i.e. a white savior. This character was originally only supposed to be present as comic relief. It’s evident in many of his earlier scenes and Wikipedia told me. But then you blink and he’s a major player in the story and ultimately a hero. Again, it felt like a larger studio hand trying to appease certain moviegoers. But how many action films have people of color given our money to over the years just to see ourselves as mere background fillers, if we are even present at all? Even 1940s all-black films stuck to the major players being all black.

Nevertheless, I’m not saying that these gripes make Black Panther any less of an amazing spectacle with an engrossing story and great performances. It’s still an incredible film that I can’t wait to revisit again! These gripes are just constructive criticisms and a means to always demand that creators of these types of stories get full control and say over all aspects of it. I recognize that although politics are laid on heavily in Black Panther, it’s not up to this film to fix everything wrong and questionable in our society. Coogler definitely deserves the credit and celebration for trying though. Of all the super hero films I’ve watched over the years, this is among my favorite for its story and aesthetics, as well as seeing hairstyles that I can try, colors that are flattering for my skin tone and scenarios I that I can put myself in. One of the simplest joys of movie watching is being able to see yourself in a picture for means of escaping into that world. Thank you, Black Panther, for letting us get to do this!

SEE IT. For the culture. 

I, Tonya (2017); And a Superb Screenplay That Got Snubbed

January 24, 2018

With Oscar nominations in, I’m surprised that for once I’m not completely put off by what the Academy has deemed “award worthy” this year. The lack of snubs are relatively few and far between but there was one snub this year that shocked and disappointed me, and that’s Steven Roger’s glorious screenplay for I, Tonya going unrecognized. But hey, you can’t please everyone. I can’t seem to get I, Tonya off my mind since seeing it last weekend. It was a striking movie-going experience that completely smashed my expectations of what a film of its type could be. Initially I was trepid going into it. Did I really need to see the story of person that potentially had something to do with a career-defining attack on an opponent for personal glory? Why should she have a story about her life when Nancy Kerrigan doesn’t? I’m supposed to have sympathy for Tonya because she was poor and troubled? I, Tonya addresses these interrogations with a resounding “well, yeah.”

I, Tonya doesn’t glorify Harding nor does it make you feel sorry for her, at least that’s not the intention of the text at hand. Instead it empathizes with the former figure skating champion. Through a mockumentary style of storytelling, it gives her and her former husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), a chance to tell their side of a complicated story, something that didn’t happen during the sensationalized incident and subsequent trial. Harding never had a chance to be American’s sweetheart or a respected champion despite her talent and the hard work she underwent to overcome poverty and years of abuse to achieve in her field. Most of Harding’s decline was due to her personal life spiraling out of control and the fact that her “white trash” persona didn’t vibe well with judges.

For as far back as I can remember, Harding has always been guilty for the attack on Kerrigan in 1994. I grew up during the wall to wall coverage of the case and remember Harding constantly being the butt of SNL skits, late night segments and reality television. I even remember her attempted comeback as a women’s boxer years later. Since those days my reaction to Harding has been one filled with callous indifference much like most of the country. She was a joke. And why shouldn’t she be? She was responsible for, if not aware of, the attack on Kerrigan. A character in the film sums this assumption up pretty perfectly when he stats that if you let some people tell it, Harding was right there bashing Kerrigan’s knee in herself on that fateful day over 20 years ago.

While it’s a little too on the nose at times, Roger’s screenplay serves as a reminder of how heavily influential the media coverage on Harding indicted her before she was ever put on trial. The film’s intention isn’t to say that Harding was completely innocent, on the contrary, it highlights her inconsistent stories, vulgarity and her own self-destructive behavior. It also merely reiterates that no one knows 100% what she did or didn’t know except those involved. Harding wasn’t found guilty of committing the crime. Her guilty verdict was for conspiring to hinder the prosecution itself. Regardless, I, Tonya doesn’t seek to portray her as an innocent bystander but it does indict the American public for continuously eating up sensationalist bullshit slopped on our plates without ever thinking to ask what it’s made it.

Roger’s script is a marvelous piece of dark comedy that presents the topic at hand with unmitigated levity, so much so that it reminded me of a pre-code film from the early 1930s, in which you’re shocked that you’re laughing at the brutality of human behavior. Robbie is a knockout as Harding and presents the figure skating icon in a sympathetic light without selling us an image of a “good girl.” Harding made poor decisions in her life and found herself clawing up for air when those decisions proved to hold too much weight. Robbie perfectly captures these character flaws while the script reminds us of Harding’s age and the influences around her, like her abusive mother and husband.

Robbie slides delicately between meek vulnerability and fierce gruffness. The screenplay gives Robbie her moment to shine as an actress and she rises to the occasion. But it’s the ensemble cast that truly makes this film as gripping and entertaining as it is. Allison Janney, Sebastian Stan and Paul Walter Hauser as Harding’s “bodyguard” Shawn completely steal the show by mastering the complex dynamics in their characters through natural performances that truly sell the incredulous sequence of event that unfold. Janney delivers one of the better performances of her career as Harding’s hard-nosed, abusive mother LaVona, who justifies her behavior by convincing herself that her brutality is out of care for her daughter. Janney is so good that it’s believable.

What struck me the about I, Tonya is how it conjures up thoughts of all of the other poor schmucks whose faces and names become staples on 24-hour news cycles until the next story takes hold and pushes it off. While the world moves on to the next case or hot story, the real-life person who has just been dragged around piece by piece must figure out how to navigate their life in a society that has now deemed them “undesirable” despite what the court of law has ruled. The most poignant scene that drives this point home come when Jeff explains how one day the media just left like it was all a bad dream after being camped on his front lawn for weeks. We watch as he crosses to his window to see a silent front yard and single news van packing up its last bit of equipment before driving off, while his television shows O.J. Simpson being surrounded by cameras the day after the death of Nicole. It’s funny how we detach a person’s humanity from them once they’ve become a staple in the media. And when I say funny I mean fucked up. Some people may watch this film and not see the importance of it under the veil of its straightforward plot, but I thoroughly enjoyed I, Tonya. In fact, I think it’s one of my favorite films of 2017.

SEE IT. 

An Open Letter to Coco (2017); and How it Connects with My Own Journey to Finding and Honoring My Ancestors.

January 17, 2018

Dear Coco,

       I really enjoyed watching watching your story unfold the other night. You stirred something deep inside of me that made me ugly cry hard in a theater full of people; a cry so guttural and visceral that I had to excuse myself to the bathroom to get my shit together. I was speechless after seeing you and it took effort to process all of the emotions coursing through me afterwards. I deeply appreciate how you worked against my expectations while still confining yourself to the typical arc of an animated story of your type. Who knew that an animated movie about a boy grappling with his love for music in a family that despises it (because a great, great, great grandfather walked away from the family for a musician’s career) would actually be a reminder to honor our ancestors, respect our heritage, and appreciate our culture. Coco you managed to be simple on the surface in order to outline more complex themes that are all too relevant in our society. You set your sights on reminding us of the harsh reality that families are broken up every day because of a lack of I.D. or policies made by isolated politicians who don’t see your story as plainly as you laid it out. You reminded us of border walls, of DACA, of parentless children who grow up with a warped sense of their heritage because an important piece of there life is missing or left behind. And yet, you still somehow spoke to me on an individual level.

       I’ll let you in on some personal insight, Coco: I just recently traced my DNA back to the mother land. Before Christmas I took the Ancestry.com DNA test and since receiving my results, I’ve called multiple family members to ask them about our family tree and any great, great grandparents that they may know. My father, mother, and great aunt provided me what they could but the tree does branch out beyond slavery just yet. Since childhood, when I first started asking where my family derives from more than two generations back, I’ve been met with uncertainty at the answer and admittance that my family just never thought to ask about those things before—no doubt the result of growing up in country ruled by white supremacy that often broke up the Black family and didn’t bother to keep records of early African American family history.

       But that hasn’t stopped the excitement that rises from each family member when they hear what I’ve learned during this process. Everyone seems giddy, anxious even, to discover members of the family we never knew about. There’s an innate desire to find the ancestors we didn’t know existed, or remember those we haven’t thought about in years. And Coco, you came at the right time to serve as a nice bookend to the pages I’m attempting to fill in about my heritage. I’m not going to lie to you Coco, I had some some issues with your storytelling methods and there’s a gaping plot hole that you practically fall through by the third act. There are also some existential, religious qualms I had, but this isn’t the time or place to discuss that because I recognize you are an animated film that just wanted to put your people and Mexican culture on your back. And you did a fantastic job of doing so. You were insightful, introspective, and beautiful to watch, and for that Coco I thank you.

Sincerely,

The Cinehpiliac

636461783516051023-coco

%d bloggers like this: