Categories
Horror Movies Reviews

‘Us’ Issues Dire Warning to a Blissfully Selfish America

Us
Rated: R
Runtime: 1 hour 56 minutes
Director: Jordan Peele
Starring: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex, and Elizabeth Moss


As complicated as the modern world presently is, it might behoove us, as a species on the verge of cataclysm, to step back and figure out where along the way we went wrong. From our ascension from the brutish state of nature to our adoption of the Social Contract, socialization and cooperation, eventually to systemic industrialization and exploitation, humankind has perpetually struggled with the notion of a “greater good” for collective prosperity: what it entails, who it applies to, who it doesn’t, and how far those with power will go to attain it. The most heinous acts committed through history – global and American slavery, the numerous attempted and successful genocides committed in the name of nationalism/religion, the catastrophic systemic violence perpetrated in service of capital – were all allowed to transpire due to that sole belief in the “greater good,” the ends of which always justify the means, or so our ruling class insists. Jordan Peele’s Us presents us a parallel world, similar to ours in all ways except one and simulates the inevitable retaliation that necessarily comes with the evils committed for the greater good, whether that’s for ourselves, our family, or our nation.

Us follows Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), a young, middle class black woman, with perfectly nuclear family and all, on vacation to their Santa Cruz beach house, where in her adolescence, she faced a disturbing  encounter with a sinister doppelgänger. Though she’s managed to live a “good” life with charismatic husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and two children Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex), Adelaide can’t help but dread the looming reunion with her mysterious adversary. They embark on their first beach excursion, where youngest child Jason ventures away from the family, triggering an already anxious Adelaide into a prompt panic. They find Jason quick enough and while he isn’t physically hurt on his person, it’s clear he’s shook. Later that night, Adelaide’s paranoid suspicion comes to pass, as the doppelgänger she met those all those years prior, along with copies of each of her family, arrives to terrorize the household and claim dominance where it really counts. But before the proverbial show can get going, Red, the name Adelaide’s copy calls herself, takes a moment to provide dramatic subtext to the imminent violence like any good villain. It’s through Red’s brief exposition that we begin to comprehend the scope of her motive.

Once again, funny-man-turned-thespian Jordan Peele masterfully weaponizes thematic misdirection to actualize another circle of social hell, different from that on display in his Academy Award-winning Get Out (2017). Contrary to its ghoulish marketing, the film reveals Red and her army of doppelgängers to have a much more familiar origin than the supernatural implications of their existence suggest. And its in this realization that the film’s point emerges: Red and her fellow “tethered” do not purposely attack to torment our protagonists. No, they are here to seize the lives they’ve been forced to approximate and take their rightful place in a civilized world. We don’t learn the details of where they come from or how, all we know is that they were originally conceived to covertly control the actions of their fulfilled opposites above ground, but when the American authority deemed them no longer necessary they were discarded, left to survive in the underbelly of the country; that is until one of them had an idea to stop the suffering themselves. Why in their right mind should they continue to endure endless torment in service of a neglectful populace when they are relentlessly denied even basic life pleasures? The violence perpetrated isn’t so much malicious as it is retaliatory; very much in the same vein as Oliver Stone’s 1994 cautionary genre flick Natural Born Killers, another fascinating film I’ve discussed at length in an earlier piece, which you can find here.

I don’t feel a need to dive into plot spoilers for Us, but audiences can be assured that every revelation, big and small, only helps solidify Peele’s greater allegory; that is, hierarchical societies, like the Capitalist America we live in, have an implicit expiration date that is pragmatically out of the hands of the ruling class. Under such conditions, there will always be a “tethered” population robbed of every outlet but one, and as long as we refuse to confront ourselves and the evil we force on others to secure our comforts, the outcome will always be the same.

sc-mov-us-jordan-peele-movie-review-0320

8.6/10
Horror Scale: 8.5/10

Categories
Movies Reviews

‘Vice’ Traces Disturbing, Precedent-Setting Network of Complacency Surrounding Greatest Political Sham in Modern History

Vice
Rated: R
Runtime: 2 hours 12 minutes
Director: Adam McKay
Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, and Alison Pill


Vice is the satirical docudrama recounting the activities of the political players responsible for the global, ideological fiasco that was/is post-9/11 American politic. Very much in the same vein as director Adam McKay’s previous film The Big Short (2015), which told a tantamount story concerning the economic travesty that was the 2005 U.S. housing mortgage crisis. This time though, we’re instead filled-in to the quiet, but monumental circumstances surrounding enigmatic figure, past Vice President Dick Cheney (played by an impressively stout Christian Bale) and the unsettling precedent he so vicariously set in his pursuit for power. Once again, Capitalism is front and center (albeit unnamed) in this historical case study of perhaps the single most fatal vulnerability in the American governing framework.

We first meet Dick Cheney inebriated, making his way down a desolate back road in an old beat-down car before getting pulled over by a cop. Surely we’re to think, “how did this troubled man come to be the cold opportunist who justifies this film?” The unsurprising answer being familial privilege. Cheney isn’t as well off as the son of a former US President, but his family ties run deep enough to earn him admission to Yale, where he quickly flunks out. Seemingly fallen into the working class rut, Cheney begins the familiar life trajectory of overworked alcoholic as pleaded by his wife Lynne (Amy Adams), whose father ends up killing her mother out of that exact truth. Lynne reminds Dick of the long list of suitors that would be happy to marry her if he doesn’t find it in himself to take care them and their own in the growingly widening socio-economic valley. It’s here in Cheney’s “lowest” moment that he makes a choice, the choice to engage the world in a way he otherwise wouldn’t. In order to spare him and his wife and family, Cheney must commit himself to power. So likely from pulling those same familial strings again, Cheney manages his way into a White House internship under the Nixon administration and crosses paths with Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), who comes off as the caricature of what every middle-aged white man aspires to be: a wise-cracking, assertive, self-fulfilled “winner”. Cheney is immediately enchanted by Rumsfeld’s over-the-top shtick, wanting so badly to be just like him. The problem is, this aspiration model he’s chasing is just that, a caricature.

This moment is key to what the rest of the film is playing at; I’m afraid too many viewers will not recognize it and be eager to dismiss it as a kind of “lazy” evocation, and they wouldn’t necessarily be wrong with that assessment, but the deeper truth on display is the one denied by Republicans and Democrats alike. As necessary participants in the neoliberal state, we are all forced to presently exist in a power structure that subjugates anyone who doesn’t actively serve it, which becomes the source of contradiction that leads to global and local exploitation, death, retaliation, and a lesson perpetually ignored by those fortunate enough to find themselves in the few positions of power. Dick Cheney didn’t “invent the wheel” so to speak, but what his story very nicely encapsulates is the volatile danger of late-stage Capitalism as it pertains to socio-political conduct. Cheney’s success in achieving proxy unitary executive power is due largely in part to the use of a combination of social engineering and new age marketing tactics, fundamental Capitalist tools, to establish the stimulus feedback that still exists to this day and fine tune his gross machination as needed. With the only actionable concern being how to gain more power than presently had, the political game now becomes just another marketing campaign – a communication framework that is at its core not real. It can never be real. When the same tactics used to sell widgets is now used to sell policy, marketer intent dictates the depicted reality that the masses will begin to believe, the more that narrative is repeated by trusted faces. The film shows us a montage of various politicians, Democrats and Republicans, echoing the same lies thought up by Cheney and company to sell to the American people and the rest of the world. And we keep buying it.

Vice has to be my biggest surprise of 2018 – even if the execution is a bit heavy-handed at times, leaning into the more sensational contemporary parallels a little too much. But it’s clear that McKay and Bale are in on the “joke,” with the punchline being the identity of whom or what Cheney swore his agency to. It’s who a teary-eyed, helplessly obedient Cheney truly addresses in the film’s final moments, as he’s channeling his inner Frank Underwood and lying directly to the audience trying to justify his evil actions. For a brief moment, the facade of strength fades and a breeze of distress rises as he turns his words to whom he was really serving the entire time: the power that compels us.

vice-bale
Christian Bale as Dick Cheney in Adam McKay’s VICE, an Annapurna Pictures release. Credit : Annapurna Pictures 2018 © Annapurna Pictures, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

8.0/10

Categories
Movies Reviews

The Tragic Beauty of Black Love Transcends the Reality of Faceted Imprisonment

If Beale Street Could Talk
Rated: R
Runtime: 1 hour 59 minutes
Director: Barry Jenkins
Starring: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo, and Teyonah Parris


2018 was truly a year for Black cinema. Between Black Panther, Sorry to Bother YouBlindspottingBlacKkKlansmanWidows, and to lesser but still noteworthy (and questionable) extent, Green Book, you would be hard-pressed to claim the year didn’t offer arguably the best class of mainstream works from ethnic filmmakers in recent memory – and that’s without mentioning other exquisite films like Roma and Crazy Rich Asians. Although, clearly missing from this list of yesteryear’s finest is Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to Best Picture winner Moonlight (2016), but not out of spit. Distribution minutiae standing, If Beale Street Can Talk was technically released in 2018, but didn’t receive a proper wide release until the other side of the new year. So when I declared my best films of 2018, I had no choice but to omit it. Let this late review of Beale Street be an inherent indication of just how highly I think of this deceivingly monumental film.

beale-street

If Beale Street Could Talk adapts James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name, telling the story of Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) and their love in the face of a reality that actively seeks to deprive them of a dignified existence. Namely, Fonny is wrongfully accused of rape and is arbitrarily jailed with little to no recourse. The film goes to length to spell out the logistical unlikelihood of his guilt, but it doesn’t really matter. Fonny is Black man in America, the implications of which help shape the narrative beats in the film. The same is true for Tish as a Black woman in America. Just as Fonny is indefinitely sent to jail, Tish learns she’s with his child and reaches out to both their families for support for what will undoubtedly be a futile slog towards an unjust conclusion, but inspired by Tish and Sonny’s pure and innocent love, they soldier on. And so, the central tragedy in Beale Street doesn’t stem from infidelity or death or our lovers’ falling out, but from the scarier truth of the African American condition, as vast a definition as that is.

Barry Jenkins again demonstrates a mastery over emotional verisimilitude throughout the film’s series of connected vignettes and flashbacks that I felt was even more accessibly resonant than in his Oscar winning film. Every facet of the production from the delectable cinematography to the gorgeous aesthetic and composer Nicholas Britell’s beautifully harmonic score aggregate a well-crafted capsule poignant in it’s ability to capture the essence of what it means to be human with no real control of your life’s potential within the arbitrary social state; the best instance of which occurs in one of my favorite sequences in the film involving Brian Tyree Henry (AtlantaWidows) and his unsettlingly neurotic monologue to Fonny and Tish about his experience in prison.

IBSCT_PR_STILLS__3.2.1

Tish and Fonny are the heart and center of Beale Street, so it’s imperative KiKi Layne and Stephan James contrive a palpable chemistry that can double as the thematic vehicle for the film, which they accomplish incredibly well – I fully expect we’ll be seeing more of them on the big screen in coming years. It’s what gives their tragedy emotional stake, as well as the film’s final, optimistic outlook; that is the consolatory triumph of love, a triumph that despite the helpless subjugation via shamelessly racist institutional handicaps (whether that’s labor or housing prospects, or safety) and random criminalization, manages to cut through the suffering.

By the end of 2018, I declared The Favourite best film of the year. I’m not sure if I prefer Beale Street over Lanthimos’ film, but I can say that they’re at least tied for the distinction in my mind, which brings me to the issue of the 2019 Academy Awards. Ever since I discovered my passion for movies as a kid, I always felt I could respect the Academy and its judgement of at least which films be nominated for the big awards, namely Best Picture. Sure, every year there’s one or two films I would have liked to see recognized, but generally I can live with the roster they put out. The same can not be said this year. It’s inexcusable that a film like Beale Street is absent from the Best Picture nominees the same year a objectively lesser film like Bohemian Rhapsody is not only nominated but somehow a contender to win. As subjective as film is, you can’t deny the discrepancy in artistic caliber between the two. It’s almost fitting that a film about the brutal truths of systemic prejudice is shunned by a legacy institution clearly ignorant of the true nature of the representation issues raised against it. Let If Beale Street Could Talk be a reminder that art and the necessity of expression cannot be determined by any central authority, whether that authority is an institution or an autonomous collective.

10/10

Categories
Horror Movies Reviews

Semi-Subversive Slasher Trades in the Machete for a Bolt Action Rifle with Surprising Success

Downrange
Rated: NR
Runtime: 1 hour 29 minutes
Director: Ryûhei Kitamura
Starring: Kelly Connaire, Stephanie Pearson, Rod Hernandez, Anthony Kirlew, and Alexa Yeames


Browsing Shudder the other week, I decided to take a gamble on one of their proclaimed “exclusive” features called Downrange. A cool blind of isolation and slasher horror, Downrange follows a troop of friends, presumably college students, as they befall a flat tire in the middle of a desolate stretch of road before quickly discovering their car trouble is no random happening. A homicidal sniper has taken up his nest with the intent to kill anyone unlucky enough to enter his kill zone, which they have just done. With death coming at any moment, the heroes must struggle to escape their inescapable predicament. You can probably surmise from the conventional set-up that Downrange is going to ultimately be your standard killer-kills-young-adults-in-mostly-brutal-fashion flick and that’s exactly what it is, but not without a few twists up it’s sleeve. Although, the impact of those subversions may be an overstatement in light of the film’s more unfavorable elements.

Downrange_08

Firstly on what works really well; the premise, or the situation, the film stages is legitimately scary in precisely on how pragmatic its execution is, especially with random gun violence becoming an accepted norm in America. Some may even recall the 1966 University of Texas tower shooting where a former marine took up a vantage point with long-range weapons to shoot and kill 16 people. On that detail, I have to give props to director Ryûhei Kitamura for running with it; it’s quite effective. Another thing that surprised me was the gore. The gore effects are very well done and are really what sell the film’s explicit slasher-ness if you will. Those not familiar with extreme gore like convincing head cave-ins and gaping body wounds, this one could sneak up on you. I’ve never been a huge fan of slashers: watching cruelty for cruelty’s sake isn’t intrinsically fun, and while I agree there’s something morbidly exhilarating or curious about going to that dark place with content – “disturbing” film enthusiasts know what I mean – there’s a time and a place for everything. With Downrange though, the bouts ultra violence don’t so much go down easier, but are subtextually justified by genre intent.

The film tries to toss in a couple twists on the conventional slasher, like swapping out the knife/stabbing kill weapon for a firearm or subverting the final-girl-who-grew-up-a-survivalist-saves-the-day cliche. I suppose the ending is also supposed to be a surprise turn of events, but the full potential of that creative effort is undercut by the needlessly elongated pacing and unconvincing character acting. This is definitely one of those horror films where you want the main characters to die because they’re so annoying to watch. I mean, for what the film is, the casting is fine enough, but it’s apparent the actors needed more direction from Kitamura than what they got.

DR_presskit_0011

Downrange isn’t the smoothest survival slasher, but it hits the mark with it’s terrifyingly relevant premise and impressively gory kills anchored by its single location narrative. As horror goes, you could do a lot worse.

4.5/10
Horror Scale: 7.4/10

Categories
Movies Reviews

‘The Favourite’ Pulls off Rare Triple Lead Ensemble as the Best Film of 2018

The Favourite
Rated: R
Runtime: 1 hour 59 minutes
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Starring: Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, and Nicholas Hoult


The Favourite is the latest romp from Greek satirist Yorgos Lanthimos. Taking a stark departure from the usually modern setting characteristic of his previous English language films The Lobster (2015) and The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), Lanthimos’ newest film dives into 18th century England for a playfully volatile love triangle between Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), her intimate political confidant Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), and Lady Sarah’s tragically misfortuned niece Abigail (Emma Stone). What transpires in the film’s brisk two hour runtime is not only another visceral examination of existential contradictions inherent to modernity, but is the acclaimed director’s best work to date, if not his masterpiece.

fav-header

Historically, I’ve found Elizabethan/Georgian period dramas, thematically, to be too measured and sanitized to hold my interest in any compelling way. While I can often times appreciate the “time travel” effect of watching such films – imagining living amongst the people in that distant time period – but the frivolity brought on by the dishonest historical depiction guts my ability to connect on the same empathic level I’m able to with other genres. If you could promise me every period piece could have the same naturalistic verisimilitude and artistic detail that graces The Favourite, I’d be first in line every opening night.

Maybe this is me getting older and actively becoming more and more interested in world history, but the first shot of the film is overwhelming with detail, almost to a disturbing effect. Queen Anne’s royal garbs and dresses are beautifully ornate displays that threaten to intimidate the viewer as if they were an English commoner in the room: co-stars Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone also wear a number of extravagant costumes encapsulating their character throughout the film. The costumes, as great as they are, only compliment the film’s total visual aesthetic. We spend a vast majority of the film in Queen Anne’s massive royal palace. Anne is quite the homebody so she spends most of her time in her master bedroom, relying on the network of secret passages ways built into the walls to move in her home in privacy. The sets are breathtaking, highlighted by the large film aspect ratio and spacious cinematography. The look and fell of the film is spectacular and could be worth the price of admission alone, but still the main selling points here are the leading trio performances from Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone.

fav3

As you would probably expect with a movie about one of the Queens of England, The Favourite is thoroughly concerned with politics, just not so much the politics of governing England. Sure the plot majorly revolves around a crucial decision to deploy offensive infantry or not and inquire peace, which would require a significant land tax increase if the former is taken, but the central conflict is a political gridlock between these three women, each of whom bring a particular complexity to their respective fights for agency. For Abigail (Stone), that “agency” is the agency to live a secure, dignified life free from the threat of rape or death. If this film had a singular protagonist, it would probably be Stone’s character. Lady Sarah (Weisz) is Queen Anne’s dearest and closest friend, advisor, and secret mistress. Despite the power disparity between the two, it’s made clear early on that she’s the one calling the shots in England’s political matters, not so much the Queen. As the favourite, Sarah’s intimate relationship with the Queen grants her proxy rule over the country in most instances and guarantees her the highest freedom and privilege attainable without being the Queen herself. Queen Anne (Colman) has grown frail over the years, requiring constant medical supervision for her severe case of gout and especially attentive emotional support for the years of trauma suffered from losing 17 children, and so she seeks agency for emotional respite from her torment and good company to pass the time, all the things Lady Sarah has provided to her for a significant portion of her life.

Words can’t begin to describe what Colman, Weisz, and Stone achieve in harmony, and what’s so impressive with the narrative itself is how it uses each character in service of the larger examination. When you’re watching the film, it’s impossible to pinpoint who the sole protagonist is. We’re so used to narratives, across multiple mediums, having only one main character, but there’s no universal law saying you have to only have one main character in a story, as rare as it may be. There are no single “protagonists” in real life, just disparate souls doing what they know how to survive. favorite-olivia-coleman

The Favourite really surprised me; from the career-defining performances from all three lead actresses and the rest of the film’s supporting cast, to it’s impeccable set and costume design, to its creative commentary on modernity and existential paradox, this is the closest thing to time traveling to 1708 you can get without imaginary technology. As far as I’m concerned, I’ve seen all the movies I’m going to see for 2018, so I can confidently declare The Favourite my favorite film of the year (sorry had to do it).

10/10