Jordan Peele Proves He Is a Master of Modern Horror with ‘Us’

It’s almost impossible to view this movie in a vacuum, a void in which director Jordan Peele didn’t make his directorial debut two years ago with the remarkable Get Out, a movie which garnered a large number of award nominations, going on to win many including the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. That weight is inescapable, but instead of trying to reinvent the wheel with his hotly anticipated sophomore effort, Peele reaches into a grab bag of horror tropes familiar to 80s and 90s horror enthusiasts and mixes them with some premises he used in his first film to create something altogether unique. The result is a genre-bending roller coaster ride that will have you on the edge of your seat one moment, then laughing yourself off the edge the next.

A few introductory scenes depict a young girl in 1986 watching a commercial for Hands Across America. Later on, she wanders off the boardwalk by herself and into a funhouse where she is frightened by a figure that looks like herself. In the present day, we are then introduced to the Wilsons, a lovely family of four on a car ride to their Northern California vacation home–the distant but protective mother, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o); the goofy, well-intentioned father, Gabe (Winston Duke); the teenage, smartphone-wise daughter, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph); and the scamp of a preteen son, Jason (Evan Alex). Attempting to enjoy themselves and relax, the family heads to the beach. Though Adelaide seemingly has mild PTSD from the aforementioned events she experienced as a child, she never talks about what happened, even as the Santa Cruz beach triggers repressed memories. All this changes when four strangers appear that night at the end of their driveway.

From start to finish, Nyong’o is particularly amazing in her role, going for broke in every scene. Adelaide is well in line with other strong, female badasses such as Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, and her transformation through the movie is very interesting to watch. Duke also plays his part well with Gabe acting as the comic relief essential for this movie to work. Peele, as he did in Get Out, loves to mix in dashes of grounded comedy, allowing for levity now and then. While Elizabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker are both serviceabe in their roles as Kitty and Josh respectively, their characters are only in a couple scenes and don’t add much to the plot except to move it forward, not knowing enough about them to care. The Wilson kids are much more integral and both are embodied well by their child actors.

Though there is a lot of violence and death, most of those deaths are never
seen directly, only implied by blood spatters and the use of sound. Many people flinch or look away when deaths are shown on-screen, so this style allows even antsy viewers to keep watching, building the sense of dread even more. When death is shown on-screen in Us, it is always a pivotal moment that no viewer will be likely to turn away from, their eyes glued to the screen. The fact that people won’t want to miss watching those deaths might say something about us as people and perhaps Peele wants us to confront that.

Many horror movies rely on overly gruesome scenes to induce scares, but Us instead depends on sound effects and music. Their implementation here is very effective at conveying emotion and provoking jumps. In one scene, when the Wilson doppelganger family is being introduced, the score strategically changes from loud orchestral music to complete silence except for some very creepy sounds, leaving us to fill the sudden void with our imagination of what will happen next. This style is also held over from 80s horror movies, but Peele uses it to such great effect here.

It’s notable how horror can be drawn from seemingly normal, everyday events and contrasting imagery. Right from the beginning, the camera follows young Adelaide closely while she walks the boardwalk with her parents. Everything is bigger than life and sounds are loud and foreign. The child holds a perfect, uneaten candy apple, signifying pure innocence. That is, of course, until she drops it and walks into the funhouse. This sort of imagery continues throughout the movie with rabbits and the color red all over the place, which only adds to the creepy atmosphere.

Peele is wonderfully on-point with the symbolism. The overall theme that everyone has a secret dark side is wonderfully executed. That, if everyone’s dark sides were revealed, they would kill everyone brings to mind the Purge movie series. However, the more poignant allusion expressed in Us is that of Trump and his effect on America, how large groups of people were forced to live in the shadows until he ran for president and now his unwavering supporters have come out of the woodwork and comprise almost half of the country’s population.

If there’s one thing that holds this movie back, it would be that the story is so dense that many ideas end up not panning out on closer inspection. For example, there is a particular verse that is alluded to a number of times. The verse itself is sort of prophetic for what happens in the movie, but it’s not clear why, say, Jason points to the alarm clock when it reads the verse number. In another scene, when everyone is enjoying themselves on the beach, a random red frisbee with a star on it nearly hits Adelaide, falls, and completely covers a blue circle on the towel. She acts concerned when she sees it, but beyond the symbolism and foreshadowing this occurrence would provide for the viewer, it’s not clear why she would think this was out of the ordinary.

In fact, there are quite a few questions the film presents, many of which are never answered. Adelaide’s early explanation of “things seem to be falling into place” doesn’t make much sense since the only thing supernatural occurring this world is the tethering concept. Peele himself may offer answers to a lot of these inconsistencies in the form of sequels, which he has alluded to being open to making. On the other hand, he has said that not providing every answer, leaving people to guess, merely adds to the psychological horror.

Jordan Peele’s much-anticipated sophomore effort is outstanding, just like his debut. His method of almost completely switching genres every 20 minutes really works for Us and keeps the viewer guessing. The underlying mystery at its core, with a twist that’s not entirely surprising, is unreservedly performed by its cast with Nyong’o standing out in particular. Though its story may not be as streamlined as Get Out, Us deserves just as much attention for its use of iconography and current-day themes and its clever merging of classic tropes with new ideas.

Score: 4.5 out of 5

Captain Marvel Review

CAUTION: I’m going to get into some spoilery territory in this review, so if you don’t want to know anything that happens, just skip to the last paragraph. 

The history of Captain Marvel goes back quite a ways, as many of Marvel’s characters do, but this one in particular is especially complex. It all started with a Captain Marvel, created in 1939, that was published by Fawcett Comics. DC Comics sued Fawcett in 1951, claiming the character was too similar to Superman, leading the latter company to cease publication of the hero. However, since Marvel Comics officially changed their name in 1961, they had every right to create a character by the same name, which they did in 1967. The catch, since Fawcett and subsequently DC also owned the Captain Marvel trademark until his name was changed to Shazam in 1972, was that Marvel had to publish a title using the name at least once every two years or they would lose the rights. As such, 7 different characters within the mainline Marvel Comics universe have held the mantle, the latest being Carol Danvers, previously known as Ms. Marvel (in turn, passing that mantle to the first Muslim character to headline a comic book, Kamala Khan).

With such a long history, it would be difficult to compress such a character down to a 2-hour+ runtime. The route the MCU takes with it is likely the easiest and most effective with the first and latest Captain Marvels at the forefront. The film begins with Carol (Brie Larson), called Vers here even though we all know what her real name is, waking from dreams she can’t explain. We come to infer from her interactions with mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) that she is a Kree, a militant and advanced alien race from the planet Hala. The Kree are at war with the Skrull, a shape-shifting alien race. Yon-Rogg is trying to teach Carol how to control her emotions and powers in battle, which he feels will make her stronger, but she is haunted by shadows of memories she can’t access because she has amnesia. They are both part of an elite task force which is soon deployed to another planet to hunt down Skrull. After a fight and crash landing, Carol finds herself on Earth and in trying to evade the Skrull that follow her and escape, she finds out who she is and the true depth of her power.

There is a lot to love in this movie. While I still wonder if we could have received a better Carol Danvers from an actress that is not so girly, Larson is absolutely capable with the part and that quality adds an interesting dimension to the character. The supporting cast is outstanding with Samuel L. Jackson, Clark Gregg, and Lee Pace returning to their previous roles and Ben Mendelsohn and Annette Bening playing new characters Talos and Mar-Vell, respectively. Goose the cat absolutely steals every scene he is in. The references to the 90s get quite a few chuckles at times, complete with cameos from Blockbuster, Radio Shack, TLC, Garbage, Smashing Pumpkins, AOL, Windows loading icons, and more. The action choreography and special effects are generally pretty great as well, especially with the de-aging deployed on Jackson and Gregg. Story-wise, Captain Marvel is decent as a prequel to the MCU, setting up things that are yet to happen, while simultaneously alluding to events we will see play out in Avengers: Endgame.

When you gloss over the movie, it’s quite functional, bright, and fun, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense upon closer inspection. When the rest of the MCU is taken into consideration and the fact that this movie chronologically takes place before all the others except the first Captain America, the timing of the communicator’s usage at the end of Infinity War, never before, seems very questionable. Not when the Chitauri attacked New York. Not when Ultron was was going to obliterate the Earth. Only right before Thanos was about to snap half of all life in the universe out of existence. Moreover, there was no guarantee that Carol wouldn’t have been snapped out of existence as well, so why would Fury have waited until the very last minute to call her?

Even when viewing the movie on its own, it doesn’t hold up very well as a stand-alone screenplay. The information dumps that seem to happen at every major plot point can be a little jarring, so much so that I think I missed some important details in the beginning of the movie while I was still adjusting to the setup. As far as origin stories go, the only reason Carol’s is interesting here is because of the amnesia angle, but that is such a predictable and overused movie trope that using it just feels lazy. The “friends become enemies, enemies become friends” story is also a twist that’s not too surprising. It’s not always clear why some things are happening or why some characters act the way they do. Fury seems to have no reaction when he finds out there’s alien life beyond Earth, and Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) acts pissed off and then sad after she finds out her best friend who disappeared 6 years prior didn’t actually die. Then she has to be talked into helping said best friend by her young daughter.

The biggest issue this movie has is that it is inconsequential from almost every angle. Sure, it introduces the titular character and the dynamic between Fury and her was entertaining to watch, but we already knew Captain Marvel existed based off of events in other movies and that she will likely save the day in the next Avengers film. DC managed to beat Marvel by having Wonder Woman as the first female-led superhero movie of the modern era. The message of this film is very muddled and seems to be that determination will overcome any obstacle, but that is never blatantly clear and only becomes apparent very near the end. After the genre-defining genius on display in Black Panther, Thor: Ragnarok, and Spiderman: Homecoming, this movie checks all the necessary boxes but fails to set itself apart or live up to the high bar of excellence those films set for the MCU. If you are not very invested in this universe, you probably won’t miss much by skipping Captain Marvel.

Score: 3 out of 5

The Oscars Should Add a Streaming Film Category

As a rule, I generally don’t watch awards shows. Though I love seeing all the men on the red carpet in their best eveningwear, the silliness that follows which substitutes for entertainment is usually so dumbed down and spread out that I’d rather do something constructive than tune in. The Academy Awards are the most lauded of the bunch yet are also the most egregious offenders. As if the show itself wasn’t bad enough, the process by which award-winners are chosen is so ridiculous and political that it makes the purpose of the award, acknowledging artistic achievement in film, a little dubious. Of course, I realize that if not for the Oscars, the general public wouldn’t know about many of the great movies released the prior year.

So the 2019 Academy Awards show is over. Whether you agree or disagree with their controversial choice for Best Picture, that boat has sailed. Every year seems to stir up new controversies, which is notable for a show that should be bringing people together to celebrate artistic achievement. This year, between having no host, being amused by Lady Gaga’s affection for Bradley Cooper, and getting mad over how the Academy appealed to a racial reconciliation fantasy against its better judgment, it would have been easy to miss another underlying contention: the role of streaming media in the film industry.

In case you’ve been living under a rock, many great movies are being made these days exclusively for streaming platforms. The Salesman, I Am Not Your Negro, The Big Sick, Manchester by the Sea, The Handmaiden, Beasts of No Nation, The Meyerowitz Stories, Mudbound, and Private Life, not to mention 2018’s multiple Oscar-winner Roma, have all been great movies and that’s just skimming the surface. Many of these were first shown at film festivals, then picked up by Amazon or Netflix for distribution. Others were financed by said companies with small releases on the big screen. Either way, there’s no denying the power of these two platforms for their ability to create and distribute films that even the snootiest critics love (yours truly included).

This is why Steven Speilberg’s comments and movement in favor of adding more rules for Oscar consideration leave me a little irritated. Speilberg is proposing the addition of even more rules as a barrier for the award, specifically geared toward keeping streaming movies out. In his mind, the theatrical experience is sacred and can’t be replaced by a television. He feels that the theater is the pinnacle of a director’s career and as such that streaming movies should only be Emmy territory, akin to the made-for-TV movies of old like Parent Trap II or High School Musical. Traditionally, if you wanted to see a good movie, you went to the cinema; if you wanted to see good TV, you turned on the boob tube. But times have changed and those lines are blurred. “You kids get off my lawn!

But seriously though, there are many reasons why Speilberg is (gasp!) wrong. Foremost is the sheer state of the film industry that, like any other, is constantly changing and now doesn’t have to revolve around the cinema. The fact is that many people get a superior experience from their TVs vice a movie screen–better picture, better sound, a more comfortable environment, no one checking their phone or talking in the row in front of you, available 24/7–so more people will choose to watch from home instead of go out. Sure, you lose out on some of the social aspects, which I would argue is essential for any art form to be appreciated, but most people would rather take their chances. The movies being released via streaming are also not made with commercial breaks baked in, so they really aren’t made for network television.

Consumers shouldn’t have to drag themselves to a specific location, which can be halfway around the world, in order to enjoy a movie the “proper” way. Moreover, whether or not a streaming movie was ever viewed via analog means does not degrade its artistic merit or messaging, which is purportedly what the Oscars reward. What we see here with the Academy mirrors what is also taking place in American politics; an organization previously run by rich, old, white men is having to reconcile with a younger, less wealthy, more diverse generation. In both situations, it seems like the old guard has a knee-jerk reaction when they think their relevancy is being threatened. Thus, they dig in their heels to prevent newcomers from completely changing the system they cherish.

Instead, they should come to terms with the change and figure out how to thrive within the shifting landscape. At this point, it’s not a matter of if the Oscars will transform but rather when. With many new streaming services just on the horizon, the award show may have anarchy on its hands within a few years if it doesn’t quickly and correctly adapt its rules to survive. If a large number of objectively great movies are left on the cutting room floor instead of being recognized simply because they didn’t reach a high bar of entry, more and more people will turn away from the show as they realize it is nothing more than a sham for ad dollars.

This is why, in lieu of their proposed Best Popular Film category (What exactly constitutes a “popular” film anyway? And is it something that really needs to be rewarded? Like Prom King?), I propose that the Academy create a Best Streaming Film category. Instead of completely shutting out a viable form of media, the best thing to do is embrace it as an equal artform separated only by its means of distribution. This would also be better for the entire industry as legitimate studios won’t be forced to show their movies unnecessarily in some random theater, film festivals excluded of course.

With the Academy having such a sordid history with diversity and inclusion, combined with ratings that continue to decline, the organization needs to lower the bar to entry, not raise it. Otherwise, people will stop giving the show the small amount of credence it currently receives and it will fade into obscurity. The Academy should go back to the premise of rewarding artistic achievement and build their rules in support of that objective with a much broader definition of the word “film”.

“Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened” and “Fyre Fraud” Comparison

Last Tuesday night, as I sat back in the recliner with my paleo freezer dinner, I shuffled through the endless options on Netflix. Suddenly, a short movie displayed on the screen that I’d heard about but still wasn’t sure if I cared enough to watch. That movie was Fyre Fraud. Of course I’ve heard of Fyre Festival. Or at least, I was aware it existed, as is most anyone who pays attention to popular culture. But I didn’t really know the specifics of when or where it took place or what happened to make it so notorious. I decided to push play because I didn’t feel like getting too deeply invested in anything over my meal.

In a nutshell, Fyre Festival was marketed to be the one to which all others would eventually be compared. Models, influencers, private jets, music performances, beach houses, yachts…it was an early-twenty-something millennial’s dream come true. However, the promise was never to be fulfilled. By the time guests showed up to the festival, there were hurricane shelter tents erected instead of the expected luxury accommodations. Attendees were served cheese sandwiches. There was an absurd amount of alcohol, which was certainly welcome concession. Oh, and none of the musicians showed up. By all measures, the festival was an absolute disaster.

But the festival itself is not necessarily the subject of Fyre (the movie). It’s more concerned with spelling out who was responsible for committing the massive amount of fraud that resulted in the catastrophic failure. The movie goes to great lengths to lay the blame squarely on the shoulders of Billy McFarland, at the time a seemingly genius entrepreneur as well as the founder and CEO of Fyre Media, Inc. The company was created in order to develop an app that would make it simple for average people to book musicians for events. If I’m being honest, it seems like a great concept. The company wanted to throw a shindig to celebrate the app coming to fruition. Unfortunately, McFarland and Ja Rule pumped the entire thing up so big that it was an impossible task.

As the movie closed out, it was heartbreaking to realize that, though no one was physically harmed, this festival had a long-lasting detrimental effect on the lives of people who were taken advantage of. Besides the local Bahamians, the effects were also felt in the influencer community as well. I’ve never understood this culture personally, and it was hilarious to watch these kids be inconvenienced when they didn’t receive the luxury they felt they deserved. On the other hand, the ones that promoted the thing initially learned a harsh lesson about protecting your brand and doing research before attaching your name to something. When Fyre ended, I was left with lingering questions like, why doesn’t Ja Rule bear any responsibility for this? and why is the hot dude seen in an early clip and picture important to the sequence of events?

The following day, in thinking about Netflix’s movie, I decided I didn’t need to see the Hulu film, assuming I got the gist and that I had other things to do. That night, lying in bed, bored and coming down with a cold, I changed my mind. Initially, the plot of Fyre Fraud was difficult to follow as it kept jumping around to different events with no definitive direction. It didn’t help much that the visuals seemed to do the same thing. This is opposed to the almost contemplative and nearly chronological direction of the Netflix movie.

The movie began to get more interesting once they sat McFarland down for an interview. So I know what you’re thinking: this is when he becomes a sympathetic villain. Nope. He is just as slimy and remorseless as Fyre made him seem. The interviews that follow paint a clear picture of all the fraudulent activity in which he was involved to the point of calling him pathological. The festival is treated as more of an afterthought, merely the event that brought everything crashing down.

Whereas Fyre developed its narrative around the stories of the people who directly organized the festival with McFarland, Fyre Fraud was focused more on those who were tertiarily involved, the more average individuals. That is a pretty distinct difference when you think about it. Netflix’s version is filled with people saying they didn’t do anything wrong and McFarland kept them in the dark when, in truth, they were all just nodding their heads the whole time hoping for a big payday eventually. Hulu wants the viewer to see and relate to people like themselves saying that the whole lot of them are culpable.

Fyre Fraud also answered my lingering questions from the Netflix movie. The hot guy is a member of FuckJerry, and Ja Rule was indicted with McFarland in many of the charges, though he still claims he is innocent and had no knowledge what was transpiring behind the scenes. For those who are unaware, as I was until this movie, FuckJerry is a massive media company whose sole reason for existing is to make memes. They were in charge of the advertising campaign for Fyre Festival and were also named in many of the indictments that came out. It is still debated how much they knew about what McFarland was doing behind the scenes. Come to find out, there’s a reason their and Ja Rule’s roles were downplayed and they were made to look like victims in the Netflix version: they were executive producers for the film!

Ladies and gentlemen, I can’t rightly give review scores to either of these movies because they are both pointless and terrible. The events revolving around the Fyre Festival are emblematic of the kind of culture that birthed it and are not worth trying to glean a message from. Though they are perfect for watching on a rainy day when you’re bored, my life was not made any more whole by watching them. I can say however that Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened made for a better movie-watching experience. Considering that watching the Netflix version is enriching some of the people behind the fraudulent festival in question and Hulu paid McFarland in order to get him on camera for Fyre Fraud, you will feel a lot less dirty if you don’t watch either film. You won’t be missing much. On the other hand, if you watch one, you really need to watch the other to get the full story.

Oh and don’t feel too bad for the Bahamians. Thanks to many generous people and GoFundMe, the local laborers are close to being made whole.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” Review

As a follow-up to the film’s Best Drama and Best Actor in a Drama Golden Globe wins and a prelude to the Oscars for which it has been nominated for Best Film, I felt it was time to finally review Bohemian Rhapsody. I never had much exposure to Queen when I was growing up, but of course I heard their songs. I was once told that “We Are the Champions” was a gay anthem because the singer was gay. This is before I even realized I was gay myself, so I took it with a grain of salt. I had video games to play.

After growing up and getting more educated in pop culture, I learned that the band was both revolutionary and iconic in the music industry. The lead singer Freddie Mercury contracted HIV at a time when the virus was a death sentence, and he was taken from this world regrettably before his time. I went in hoping that this movie would inspire me to do more research, doing the band and the singer justice since I barely knew anything about them outside their hits. Just a warning: since this is a biopic and based on true events, there may be minor spoilers throughout this review.

Trailer Addict

The movie begins prior to the formation of the band and shows how the members met. We start with Farrokh Bulsara (Rami Malek), the man who would eventually become Freddie Mercury, living a somewhat normal life as a college student with a part-time job. He loves to sing and has convinced himself he is destined to be an international superstar.

One night, after attending the performance of a local group called Smile, he decides to introduce himself to them. Their lead singer suddenly quits minutes beforehand leaving Brian May (Gwylem Lee) and Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) in the lurch and leading Farrokh to initiate something of an impromptu audition to replace him. After adding a bassist to the mix, John Deacon (Joe Mazzello), the four go on the road as a full-fledged band. Farrokh then legally changes his name, much to his father’s chagrin, and the rest is history.

We Live Entertainment

Let’s get one thing perfectly clear: Rami Malek achieves a full embodiment of Freddie Mercury, complete with the vocalist’s famous overbite. Having honed his acting chops in Short Term 12 and Mr. Robot, this movie is yet another highlight of his career. Besides watching Malek shine, it was exhilarating to watch all the high-energy concerts complete with choreography, even though the actor is lip syncing. The final sequence is also quite emotional, even though it gets a little long and the audience is CGI. Being that Malek is not a singer and it’s difficult to reproduce a packed stadium, these slights are forgivable.

The big issue with this film is that it can’t seem to decide if it wants to go all in on the music or the ongoing background drama of the band. Instead of getting a great movie that succinctly represents one or the other, we got a mediocre one that halfheartedly attempts to cover both bases. As such, there is a predictable cycle of dramatic confrontation followed by iconic song creation and a subsequent band performance complete with how the world reacted to it. This all gets a little tired after about three of these cycles and the band goes on hiatus. It’s all a little too predictable and many of the conflicts either never get fully resolved or suddenly get tied up with a bow in one scene.

Roger Ebert

Moreover, Freddie Mercury has been renown as a gay icon, perhaps the gay icon, yet there isn’t much here about the secret life he lived that led to his contracting AIDS. Rumor has it he lived most of his life knowing exactly who he was and who he was attracted to, he simply never felt the need to publicize it, much like Elton John and David Bowie were at one time. Though this movie was certainly trying to stay out of R-rated territory, I feel like it handled his sexuality similar to the way it did every other conflict–with non-offensive kiddie gloves. One needs to ask oneself how important it is for a biopic to accurately depict its subjects.

I guess I could sum up Bohemian Rhapsody by describing it as well-produced, but not well-directed. It’s basically a popcorn flick to watch on a rainy day or with a big group of friends MST3K-style. Bryan Singer is so risk-averse that he seems to have purposely made a movie that would appeal to the greatest number of people, as he usually does. Arguably, that’s all 20th Century Fox cares about–getting as many butts in the seats as possible.

Vulture

To be perfectly honest, if this film didn’t star the very capable Rami Malek, it might not even be worth watching. I did learn some things–Brian May is an astrophysicist, there was a time when the world could come together to help a people in dire need, Freddie Mercury was a crazy cat lady–but this was a missed opportunity to tell a story not many people know about the hidden side of a beloved band. Queen deserves better.

Score: 2.5 out of 5

“Annihilation” Review

For those who haven’t heard of the Southern Reach trilogy of novels by James VanderMeer, their story is based on the aftereffects of a mysterious object crashing into the Earth. In Annihilation, the first of the trilogy, a group of four women journey into a place called Area X, an expanding area surrounding the impact of the crash from which no explorers have returned. The movie by the same name stars Natalie Portman in the role of one of these women, the biologist, and follows her role in this journey. The biggest difference between the movie and the book is that the former doesn’t seem to have been created with the intention of being part of a trilogy–it isn’t so much adapted from the book as it is inspired by it.

Director Alex Garland doesn’t waste much time establishing the characters or their motivations before getting into the main story. Lena is a biologist whose husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), mysteriously disappeared during a top secret military assignment. Assuming he was dead after a year of no contact, she is surprised one day when he suddenly walks through the front door. He can’t offer much of an explanation for where he’s been or what he’s been doing for all this time, and upon the onset of a seizure, the couple are abducted by a military organization. After a series of revelations including finding out what Kane’s original mission was, Lena decides that she has to venture into the area dubbed the Shimmer surrounding the lighthouse crash site.

The imagery in this movie is amazing from beginning to end and it is unlike anything ever seen on the silver screen. There are beautiful flowers, horrific animals, and humans doing terrible things they wouldn’t normally do. Annihilation is completely unpredictable and keeps you guessing at what will happen next, what new thing has been created and why. It’s easy to draw some comparisons between this movie and horror/sci-fi classic Alien as both are female led and spectacularly create a constant sense of dread.

The way this movie sets itself apart is by presenting countless questions and never quite answering any of them. This is the true essence of Lovecraftian horror and Annihilation excels at it as Garland is more concerned with drawing terror from pairing frightening images with no explanation, much like how terrible things happen in real life. The story, which directly discusses such subjects as evolution, mutation, and personal demons, could be seen as an allegory for a number of different things like cancer and how humans affect the environments they inhabit with little regard to what already existed there. An ant similarly doesn’t have the capacity to understand why or how a house was built on top of its anthill.

It’s tough to grade works that don’t have any specific answers to posed questions and have open endings. The problem is they are often inaccessible and only cerebral people will really appreciate them. However, even cerebral movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner are considered classics. Being inaccessible isn’t necessary a problem, but it does become a detractor for those who just want to sit back and turn their brains off. Annihilation is a great movie for people who people who don’t mind being grossed out or mind-fucked, but others should probably tread lightly.

Score: 4 out of 5

“Black Mirror: Bandersnatch” Review

It’s no secret that I love Black Mirror. Not every episode is a masterpiece like “San Junipero” of course, but most of them contain a certain dystopian cautionary tale that feels uncannily poignant upon first viewing. I’d heard this new episode/movie was in development over the summer and, being a fan of the choose-your-own-adventure books that were popular in the 80s, I was anxious to see how the series would adapt this interesting concept for TV.

This episode concerns a young programmer by the name of Stefan. He wakes up to his alarm in 1984 and prepares himself for an interview at a game company. There, he meets Colin who is apparently something of a genius when it comes to creating popular computer games. Stefan pitches his idea of developing his own game called Bandersnatch which is basically what we would call a visual novel in the gaming world today, an interactive adventure with branching storylines based on the decisions you make, based on a book of the same name. I’m not going to deny that this is an interesting premise.

Some of the endings that you can get break the fourth wall and get kind of meta, which is cool. There is even one ending where some completely random things happen and I laughed hysterically because of how preposterous it was. However, the pieces of the story don’t quite fit together to make a cohesive story or message. Colin is present in some scenes but absent in others with no explanation for why. It could be that one of the endings (I found about 5 before I got bored and gave up) goes into more detail, but the viewer shouldn’t have to dig through all the possibilities to make a story make sense.

There was a pivotal moment for me when I was given a choice between having Stefan or Colin die. I thought to myself, how cool would it be if when you commit suicide it unlocks other paths that were previously unavailable? I’ll save you a little time and tell you that wasn’t the case. It left me feeling like there are many video games which have used this premise and made an infinitely better story out of it like Virtue’s Last Reward for example which shows you all the branching paths and the ones you need to unlock. In contrast, Bandersnatch’s series of plot points ranging from psychosis to time travel to secret organizations just feels like the creators threw everything at the wall hoping something would stick.

I look forward to see what Netflix does with this premise in the future if they can manage to marry their accessibility with an amazing story. Despite what it lacks, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy Bandersnatch. If you have nothing better to do and you’re curious, you should give it a watch. But don’t go in expecting anything earth-shattering. Don’t expect it to change the way you see the world. Don’t dig for those elusive endings that apparently no one has found yet. There are worse ways to spend an hour. Then again, there are also better ways.

Score: 2.5 out of 5

“A Star Is Born” Review

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: ordinary woman is discovered by man to have extraordinary talent, man elevates woman so she can be seen by others, man and woman fall in love, woman surpasses man, man fades into obscurity. If it sounds familiar, it might be because this is the third remake this movie has seen and that the story has become cliched since. While it might seem like I’m making a dig at Hollywood for being unoriginal, I’m really not. I’m completely in favor of taking classic stories and reinterpreting them for the modern times, as long as it stays relevant and on point. Though I haven’t seen any of the prior versions, I am aware that each one has its quirks. The version released in 2018 is, just like the others, a take on the familiar that is still very much of its time with its own missteps.

The story begins with Jackson “Jack” Maine (Bradley Cooper) finishing up a performance and wandering into a drag bar, already drunk. Of course, he is recognized by a few of the patrons and, after being captivated by her performance, is introduced to the mononymous Ally (Lady Gaga). The two hit it off immediately and before long, she is backstage at his next concert being coaxed on-stage to sing a song she wrote. The moment she does was probably the most powerful in the movie. The song the two co-stars sing is exactly Gaga’s style and shows off her vocal and songwriting prowess. Unfortunately, after that, the movie degrades into a series of montages and telling the audience what is happening or has happened in the past.

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This is really a let down because Cooper and Gaga have great on-screen chemistry. Cooper sells it as a drunk Americana vocalist, and Gaga shines as a girl who is trying to pave her own way. It’s the attempt to do both of these stories justice that makes it fall apart. In fact, I couldn’t believe that she stayed in a relationship with him after everything that she knew about him. They lean in hard on Jack’s substance abuse and auditory problems at the expense of showing how Ally has lost creative control of her music and is frustrated by how controlling her manager can be. It seems the director (Bradley Cooper) only wanted to show the destructive side of Jack that was there before he met Ally, as opposed to the destruction he might have wrought on Ally because of his intervention. The ending left me feeling like a lot of important things were unresolved.

Though the story may have faltered, there is a lot this movie does that works. I loved how the drag scene was used in a positive light and as a place where Ally could perfect her craft. The cinematography was great, giving us close-ups in dramatic moments so we could catch each emotional twitch and panning out to show high energy scenes like concerts. The soundtrack, though comprised of various genres, was also strong. I’m sure writing those songs gave Gaga plenty of inspiration for the direction of her next album. The bits of modern culture thrown in like Saturday Night Live and becoming famous via YouTube also help make the story more relatable.

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The music industry is just as fickle as Hollywood. Sometimes the people with the most talent in either don’t get the credit or notoriety they deserve. One day a star can be on top of the world, the next, in the gutter. Cooper’s A Star Is Born made an attempt at exploring this premise, but got bogged down in the overall message it was trying to convey. However, the cautionary tale unintentionally became about people who destroy themselves, the ones who enable them, and how fame can exacerbate issues instead of solve them. Or something. The result here is a movie that starts very strong with competent star power but eventually just fizzles out.

Score: 3 out of 5

“First Man” Review

Like many young boys, when I was a kid I wanted to be an astronaut. However, at 14 I gave up on the dream when learned that in order to go to space I had to have perfect vision. (I would later have to get a waiver to join the Navy because my right eye was so bad.) My husband got as close as being nominated to the program and might have been flown the shuttle if he had been picked. Needless to say, we both still dream of going to space and idolize the first man to walk on the moon. Alas, this review is not about us or even Mr. Armstrong but the movie made regarding his journey to be one of the most famous people in history.

First Man is based on a book by the same name, the official biography of Neil Armstrong and is reportedly quite faithful as an adaptation. Ryan Gosling plays the quiet, controlled leading man so accurately that the creators had to include more scenes of him being tender so he didn’t come off as a robot. Claire Foy is equally brilliant in her portrayal of Neil’s first wife, Janet Armstrong (née Shearon), trying to stay sane and hold her family together. The chemistry between them and the rest of the cast seems almost natural. The cinematography is truly astounding from start to finish with the extensive use of hand-held cameras, constant shaking in moments of danger, and expansive shots when necessary. Some may consider this jarring, but it made me feel like I was right there with Neil, seeing the world through his eyes.

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The movie begins with some pretty harrowing events that help shape Mr. Armstrong into the man he would become. The first occurs when he is a test pilot flying the X15 rocket plane. After leaving the Earth’s atmosphere, he accidentally bounces off of it when attempting a return (which I didn’t realize was possible). Instead of freaking out like I would, his quick thinking saves him from floating off into space. Not long after that, he loses his daughter to a brain tumor and is forced to deal with it the way Neil did with everything else–by going to work the next day. Either one of these incidents on their own would cripple most people, but Neil exhibits a knack for compartmentalizing his emotions so that he can concentrate on other important matters, such as becoming an astronaut.

It should be noted that much of the film is spent not in space but in conference rooms, houses, and class rooms. It shows us that becoming an astronaut is not as glamorous as it seems from the outside. It shows us that being an astronaut involves extreme risk. There are a number of twists in the movie emotionally and narratively, few of which will be a big surprise to space geeks. However, while people may already know these stories from memory, it is quite different seeing them acted out on screen. It is a reality that many were against the space race because of the tax dollars they felt were being wasted. It is also a fact that a number of individuals died, and continue to die, in an effort to achieve the unachievable for the common good.

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The movie can be separated into four distinct parts: the opening events, Gemini 8, Apollo 1, and Apollo 11. I absolutely agree that all of them were important for telling Neil’s story, but the movie got to be a little long in the tooth by the time the final sequence began. It could have easily trimmed off 20 minutes’ worth of the shaking and been roughly the same movie. In effect, this would have made the remaining lengthy scenes stand out even more. Though the film is long, as a whole it doesn’t feel long, so the aforementioned isn’t much of a detractor, merely an observation.

I want to talk about one more thing that I feel is important to understand. Many have taken to their Twitter machines espousing a boycott of the film because the end doesn’t include raising the American flag. They feel like that means Damien Chazelle and his movie are anti-America. They clearly miss that the point of the movie, and indeed going to the Moon, was not about showing what our country can do but what humanity can do. Showcasing the flag at that pivotal moment would have detracted from that message. Everyone around the world watched in awe as Neil Armstrong did something that no one initially believed was possible.

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While First Man purports to tell the story of how Neil Armstrong got to the Moon, it’s actually a tale of all mankind, how we can accomplish anything when we put our minds to it. There are very few events in modern history that can show the will of the combined human spirit so poignantly. It could be argued that this film was necessary to help inspire the masses out of complacency and not taking risks, the mentality that has taken hold of our species since the space race ended. Neil proved that even seemingly impossible tasks can be achieved if we all band together and refuse to give up.

Score: 4.5/5

Bonus: Here’s a couple shots I found of Ryan Gosling promoting First Man in head-to-toe Gucci, looking dapper as ever.

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“Boy” Review

My love affair with Taika Waititi movies began with Thor: Ragnarok. Yes, I’m a nerd and I’ve seen all the movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it’s no secret that the third Thor outing was as great as it was because of the style that Waititi imparted. The New Zealander’s dry wit was something not many in the US had seen. Craving more of his work, I watched Hunt for the Wilderpeople and What We Do in the Shadows, both of which were hilarious yet simultaneously warm. So on a whim one night, I decided to partake in one of the director’s early works, named simply Boy.

The opening scenes are delightful and introduce us to the titular character, Boy (James Rolleston), and his world. He loves Michael Jackson. He lives with his grandmother, his brother Rocky (Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu), and several cousins. When his grandmother leaves to go to a funeral, she puts the 11-year-old in charge of the house and kids as he is the oldest. Everything seems fine until his estranged father, Alamein (Waititi), arrives unexpectedly saying he’s there to take care of them. For me, this is when the movie stopped being cute and funny.

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In truth, Boy’s father has only come to dig up a bag of cash he buried in the yard several years prior. He is a deadbeat and complete asshole to all the children, including Boy, which makes his older son think that it’s okay for him to be an asshole, too. Both characters begin to alienate everyone around them while trying to show off how cool they are. The only person who seems to have any sense and can see through it all is the introverted Rocky. I wanted to sympathize for Boy because his situation sucked and he was only trying to make the best out of a bad situation, but how can you root for a character you don’t like? The small glimmer of promise came from Rocky who is so cute with his little drawings and thinking he has superpowers, I wish he would have been the main character.

There are a few messages to glean from this movie about neglecting your kids and being mean to them, how they can then replicate that in their own lives. The acting is great from the young upstarts in particular, and the overall production stands as proof that big budgets aren’t a necessity. However, when a movie leans into a goofy premise within the first 10 minutes, you tend to expect that it is more of a comedy. The fact that it doesn’t follow through on that will leave viewers feeling lost on how to react and wondering if the writer/director just lost steam. One might be willing to forgive Boy for being a genre-bender, but I tend to think it was just poorly written, especially considering this was only Waititi’s second movie. Thus, like all good love affairs, this one has ended.

Score: 2/5