Us

Us, filmmaker Jordan Peele’s second feature film, is a well-crafted, modern thriller that hits all of the horror beats. The film starts off as a normal home-invasion story and then somehow seamlessly works in grand conspiracy theories without disconnecting from reality. Most importantly, it’s a film that demands an instant rewatch to fully grasp the story as well as catch all the little moments and the underlying metaphors.

If you were to strip this film of the unique and haunting story you would still have a masterclass of film making to watch. From the first moment Peele’s craft is instantly on display with the opening time-establishing shot of an old TV playing a Hands Across America ad. It’s a simple moment that ends up establishing more of the plot than seems possible.

It’s still 1986 and we jump to little Adelaide’s night at the Santa Cruz amusement park. Her father wins her a Michael Jackson Thriller t-shirt and then her parents bicker and eventually become distracted. This leads to Adelaide wandering off by herself into the dark California beach. A wandering child in the dark is stressful enough but then Adelaide finds herself exploring a classic horror movie trope, a house of mirrors. And despite the classic setup, Peele finds a way to make these moments fresh, tense, and instantly memorable. An incident occurs. An incident I cannot spoil but one that is an instant classic and that sets the entire movie in motion.

And now that the entire audience is unsettled Peele doesn’t let off. The title sequence, seemingly simple, establishes the tension and the upcoming oddities with a purely haunting score and a mesmerizing visual aid. Within the first 15 minutes of the movie you are hooked and buckled up for the worst.

Unfortunately from there the film dips into standard thriller fodder. It fast forwards to modern day and presents a normal family, Adelaide, now played by Lupita Nyong’o, has grown up to be a nervous but loving mother and is married to a man that fully embraces his dad joke role in life. They have a preteen daughter, ears buds firmly entrenched, and a son that is still filled with imagination and has a belief in magic. They are staying in their summer vacation house in Santa Cruz, returning to the site of Adelaide’s “incident”. Only Adelaide’s family does not yet know what happened on the beach in 1986.

The family is enjoying their time before a group of four people show up unannounced in their driveway. Unfortunately that’s as deep into the story I can go without spoiling the good parts. Just know at this point the film goes into full thriller mode which is heart-pounding but filled with moments that are expected and not exactly memorable. Luckily even in the cliche and normal beats, the film is anchored by Lupita Nyong’o’s captivating performance of a woman who steps up to kick ass to, seemingly, protect her family.

(To illustrate just how much ass she kicks, at some point Adelaide gets out of the car to check on one of the many murderous attackers she is fighting. This is a classic, “WHY ARE YOU GETTING OUT OF THE CAR” moments that your brain loves to hate in horror movies. Except in this case your brain is like, “Actually no, Adelaide’s got this”.)

In between all the high tension thriller action, the film does bounce back and forth between 1986 and the modern day to fill some of the narrative gaps but still leaves a few frustrating questions at the end. By the end of the film I’m not confident that Adelaide’s character arc tracks completely and it feels like we were missing a few scenes that would have been connective tissue or further clues to explain our protagonist’s life. Although even as I write this I will admit this is a minor complaint and there is the possibility that a rewatch will satisfy my qualms.

And minor qualms is really all I can complain about because between this stylistic thriller hitting all of the established beats and a script that, much like Get Out, is tightly written and hardly contains a wasted moment, it’s difficult to determine if Jordan Peele is a more skilled director or writer. In fact that might be Peele’s biggest accomplishment in his short filmmaker career. It almost seems impossible for one guy to be so good so quickly.

Us is a film that you will want to come back to. It’s memorable and important just like Get Out, however it is more tense and it’s themes more understated than Peele’s first film. Get Out was in your face, screaming it’s themes at you to grab your attention. It had to be. And now that Peele has your attention, Us unequivocally proves he deserves it.

Wes Anderson’s Criterion Journey: Bottle Rocket

I was never much of a Wes Anderson fan growing up.

Perhaps I was too young or too impatient to understand his style of filmmaking. I remember watching The Royal Tenenbaums when it came out and, other than the scene when Danny Glover falls into a ditch as he’s walking alongside Anjelica Houston, I didn’t laugh once. There were excerpts of critics praising that movie all over the case of the DVD, so what was I missing?

It wasn’t until it was screened for us during my senior year of high school that it finally clicked for me. I guess you have to experience your own period of growing pains filled with awkward moments before you can grasp that absurd and ironic sense of humor. Or maybe that was exclusive to me. Whatever the reason that it took me so long, I’ve been a fan of his ever since.

I’m also a fan of collecting movies. The guest bedroom in my apartment has shelves packed full of blu-ray discs, which is a testament to my fiance’s patience to put up with that sort of thing and a perfect example of why nowadays most people opt for streaming: storing that many movies is a big pain in the ass. For me, it’s more of a labor of love and when I found out that Anderson has gradually been remastering all of his feature films and releasing them on blu-ray through the Criterion Collection, I knew that I had to have them.

Which brings me here. If you’re going to buy all of these films, watch them and try to turn it into a series for your blog, you have to start at the beginning.

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Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

 

Kevin: Alright Jesse, I conned you into another ‘Let’s Talk About’ blog. Honestly I only do these to get out of my responsibility of writing a review by myself. How does it feel to be Tom Sawyer’ed?

Jesse: That would imply that you tricked me into doing something unpleasant or laborious. Unless this is actually a chat about Spider-Man 3, I’m really excited to be here!

Wait, is this a chat about Spider-Man 3?

Kevin: It’s not. Unless you want to pretend we live in an alternate Spider-Verse where Spider-Man 3 was actually, you know, good. Alas, we do not, we live in the Spider-Verse that is constantly chasing the high of Spider-Man 2 and has so far given us an unnecessary reboot attempt to start a new cinematic universe, a successful attempt to work a rebooted Spider-Man into an existing cinematic universe, and a confusing attempt to start a new cinematic universe with Spider-Man’s greatest foe but without Spider-Man.

It’s been an awkward decade to be a Spider-Man fan to say the least. But being awkward is part of the charm of Spider-Man so I guess it fits. The good news is all of this awkwardness paid off and we finally got the Spider-Man, er Spider-Men…actually Spider-People…wait, Spider-Mammals that we deserve!

And listen, I know rankings are pointless and biased and overdone, so I won’t rank where Into the Spider-Verse falls in the franchise, I will just say this was simply the most fun I have EVER had with a Spider-Man movie. Is that a fair statement?

Jesse: Of course. This was a visual feast of a comic book movie, enhanced by an animation style that I don’t recall seeing before and a vibrant color palette that takes full advantage of the big screen. Throw in a banging soundtrack, a diverse and delightful voice cast and a refreshing origin story, and this was definitely the most fun that I had at a Spider-Man movie since Sam Raimi’s beloved second installment.

Most fun ever? My nostalgia for Spider-Man 2 fights me on that but how great is it that we even get to have that conversation? It only took 14 years.

From a pure enjoyment standpoint, what are some of the things about Into the Spider-Verse that give it the edge for you?

Kevin: The most fun part for me was the seemingly limitless potential of the Spider-Verse. As someone who went into the movie with limited knowledge of the pre-existing Spider-Verse, it was a ball to be thrown into so many wild and random alternate worlds. It opened up my imagination in a way that I haven’t felt since I was a kid who spent my free time drawing made-up versions of Yoshi (I’m positive I drew a Spider-Yoshi at some point).

On top of that, in addition to the visual feast you mentioned, the web slinging and battle scenes were off the charts. After years and years of the superhero movies hitting similar beats in their big action pieces, Into the Spider-Verse was a dose of fresh air. Especially the climatic battle at the end which was visually stunning and a hell of a lot of fun.

On top of that, the self-referential humor was top notch and not overly done. The entire ride from start-to-finish was a blast that you instantly want to re-watch.

I have to say my absolute favorite aspect of this movie might be the diversity it opened up to the superhero world. As someone who campaigned for Donald Glover to pick up the Spidey suit years ago, I am thrilled to see Marvel bring Miles Morales to the screen.

My question to you, seeing that this movie opened up our imaginations and paved the path for some much needed diversity, is where do you see this alternate universe thing going? Or more importantly, where do you want to see it go? Do you want a straight sequel that picks up where we left Miles? Do you want a spinoff battle royale between Spider-Ham and the Homer Simpson’s Spider-Pig? Or do you want Nicholas Cage to voice a trilogy of Spider-Man Noir?

Jesse: Oh I’m fully confident Sony will cash in on every opportunity to make more movies in this franchise. You can have more sequels with Miles, and you can have oddball spin-offs with Nicholas Cage or a showdown of Spider-Ham versus Spider-Pig. The LEGO movies milk the shit out of this formula.

With Tom Holland still portraying the live-action Spidey over in the MCU, and those movies likely making more money than any featuring yet another Spider-Man reboot at Sony would, my hunch is that Sony will want to keep it that way. In turn, I would expect they’ll do everything they can to build a franchise in the Spider-Verse.

So my answer to your question is basically “All of the Above.” Knowing how badly they’ve messed up this type of thing before, would you be worried at all about that happening again here?

Kevin: The only reason to not worry is because of how self-aware Into the Spider-Verse was. They poked fun at many of the mistakes the past Spider-Man movies have made form the endless reboots to emo dancing.

Still, movie franchises usually lose steam, they change writers, or directors. Or if they manage to keep the creative minds behind something so fresh, the freshness eventually wears off, or the creative people get lazy or run out of ideas.

However, these days Marvel’s image is so micromanaged that there isn’t much wiggle room to screw things up (Venom notwithstanding). I think the real question is, what will get old sooner, the endless Spider-Man franchise or the endless superhero movie genre?

Personally I foresee some great superhero fatigue following the release of Avengers: Endgame this year. And unfortunately the Into the Spider-Verse universe could be the victim of an apathetic audience.

Who am I kidding, I bet Disney is already lining up two sequels and three TV seasons straight-to-their-new-streaming-program. I bet we will drown in Spider-Mammals until no one can hear our muffled objections.

I digress, I loved this movie and it has given me hope that there is still juice to squeeze in the superhero genre. And this juice happens to be animated, fun, and all about Spider-Man so I couldn’t be more thrilled.

Now that you’ve soaked the movie in fully, what is your final ranking of all Spider-Man movies? Where does it fall in all of the superhero movies?

Jesse: Oh sure, you said it was pointless to rank these movies earlier, but now that’s up to me? I see how it is.

I won’t count Civil War or Infinity War, because Spidey was just a character included in a much larger scope, but everything else is fair game. Let’s get the garbage out of the way first:

7. Spider-Man 3

It’s fair to argue whether or not this is truly the worst of the bunch, but Spidey 3 was unquestionably the most disappointing movie-going experience of my life. Never before or since have I left a theater more bewildered, confused and desperately hoping for the flashy thingy from Men in Black so that I could forget everything.

6. The Amazing Spider-Man

5. The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Behold this joke of a reboot featuring the “untold story” of Peter Parker’s origin, which is more or less the same story we already knew, just more convoluted and angsty. Because that’s what every movie in the early 2010’s needed right? More teenage angst!

I will say the second one makes me want to gouge my eyes out a little less, mainly because Andrew Garfield hinted that he could do the character more justice than the hopeless script and clueless studio allowed him to. But alas, it was not to be.

4. Spider-Man: Homecoming

Homecoming is the rice cooker of Spidey movies: does what it’s supposed to do and you can’t complain about the result, but it’s a little bland and definitely leaves you wanting more. Michael Keaton’s villainous turn as yet another costumed bird-man is the best reason for revisiting this one.

3. Spider-Man

Ah, the wonders of letting a campy director like Sam Raimi get his hands on a superhero movie and then leaving him to his own devices. This isn’t usually a style that’s allowed within this genre anymore, and that’s made the first Spidey flick of this millennium stand out more and more as time has gone on.

1B. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

1A: Spider-Man 2

I mentioned earlier that I can’t pick between these two. Having not seen either since my first viewing of Into the Spider-Verse, I don’t think it’s fair for me to try now, but I believe that either one would be worthy of the coveted no. 1 slot.

So what say you Kevin? Are you shaking your head at my logic or disappointed that I didn’t include Venom or the hilariously bad Spidey movie from when we were little kids? And any other final thoughts?

Kevin: I think you nailed it Jesse. However I might start claiming Into the Spider-Verse is the best Spider-Man movie of all time just so we can fight about it.

No final thoughts from me, I look forward to revisiting this topic after we see Avengers: Into the Avenger-verse in 2022.

I Always Come Back to Up in the Air

You may have noticed that it’s been a little quiet around here lately. I have a habit of not forcing myself to write unless I feel a great surge of inspiration. I wouldn’t say that this is the best way to complete your next piece as a writer, as it’s a good rule of thumb to fight through these periods of “writer’s block” and just get something down (a rule that I am admittedly very bad at following).

My goal for the future is to break this habit. My goal for today is to tell you about the surge of inspiration that hit me on Monday while I was taking the train downtown. It involves George Clooney and a little film known as Up in the Air. Why did a movie from 2009 randomly pop in my head while I was on the light rail? No idea. This is one of the reasons that I liken films to old friends: you can go months or even years without coming across them, but one day they just appear again and you instantly reconnect with them.

Maybe part of the reason it was this particular film is that Up in the Air is all about connections: the ones we don’t make, the ones we do and wish we hadn’t, and the startling realization that life just isn’t the same without them.

In order to truly explore this, I am going to go in-depth with the plot details here. If you continue, you’ve already seen the movie or just don’t care about spoilers. Power to you.

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Penny Marshall, Awakenings and Living Your Life

A lot of people remember her as the Golden Globe Award winning actress from Laverne & Shirley, one of the most beloved sitcoms of the 70’s and early 80’s. I watched Big all the time when I was a kid, so I remember her as the director who turned a small boy into Tom Hanks. Others may recall her witty cameo from Hocus Pocus (possibly without even realizing it was her), who as “The Master’s Wife” cracked wise and told those witches to get the hell out of her house. Thanks to A League of Their Own, I always wait for Tom Hanks to show up and chastise someone for crying in baseball whenever I see a person crying in baseball.

Whatever your memories of the indelible Penny Marshall are, either her career as an actress, her collaborations with Hanks or anything in between, there is no disputing the impact that she had on both television and film. A trailblazer if there ever was one, an entertainer with a rather underrated body of work and whom unbeknownst to me was also a major sports fan, even possessing season tickets to both the Lakers and Clippers. I’ve been watching basketball for years and never knew, but it was likely both her intention to stay out of the spotlight during those games and the camera only cutting to Jack Nicholson at courtside that caused me to miss that.

Marshall’s desire to avoid that kind of attention while still endearing herself to those around her encapsulates her career as a director rather well. When I heard she had sadly passed away just a few weeks ago, I made a mental note to rewatch Awakenings because I view it as the ultimate Penny Marshall film.

My reasoning is simple: it’s likely the greatest movie that you have never seen.

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The Problem with Bird Box and Comparisons

Humans are obsessed with control. This is a big issue because life is pure chaos. And yet this fact does little to dissuade us. We still create rules, search for meaning, and do our best to increase our chance of survival on a day-to-day basis. We also make comparisons. We try to put things into neat boxes as a way to organize and understand the world. This can be good. It can lead to discovering new things you might enjoy. Hey, you like the band Led Zeppelin? Check out Greta Van Fleet! Did you grow up playing Monopoly? Give Settlers of Catan a go! Enjoyed the eerie, engrossing, and tightly paced movie A Quiet Place? Check out the cheesy, predictable, and scattered film Bird Box on Netflix right now! Wait a minute…

Comparisons don’t always work. In fact, they can make you feel ripped off. Like when your friend tells you to check out the new Netflix original movie Bird Box starring Sandra Bullock because it’s *just* like 2018’s critically acclaimed movie A Quiet Place except with the danger being vision not sound! Great, I thought, John Krasinki’s brilliant directorial debut is having a quick and important impact on modern horror films! What could go wrong? Bird Box, that went wrong.

A Quiet Place was deliberate, with moment-to-moment tension. Each moment had a purpose and a chilling threat that something could go wrong at a literal drop of a dime. It also had the advantage of a more cinematic human sense, sound, being stripped away from it’s characters. The film could, and did, mute the sounds in key scenes to let you see the world from Regan’s deaf point of view. In addition, they spent very little time digging into the character’s lives and back stories. Typically ignoring this side of your characters would drag a movie down. In this case it forced the viewers to feel more empathy, and therefore fear, for this family. All the audience knew was this was a family, stripped down to straight survival.

Meanwhile, Bird Box opens up with a family, on a river, blind folded. There’s a mother and two children. They are surrounded by an eerie and cold fog. It’s gripping and intense. The mother is scolding the children like a military leader. Ruthless, annoyed, but it is clear what she is saying is important and their only chance of survival. Who are these people? How did they get here? It doesn’t matter, all the audience needs to know is they are on a river in a small boat without sight and they need to survive. I’m all in.

And then? Flashback to five years earlier. We see the mom, she’s pregnant, the news is reporting a strange wave of mass suicides, she goes to the doctor, on her way home the thing that was on the news is happening around her, people are dying, she needs to find shelter, she gets trapped with an eclectic group of diverse strangers, what will they *ever* do to survive? Yawn.

This is the difference between these two thriller movies. A Quiet Place hardly ever lets up for the audience. Bird Box endlessly jumps back between a standard grade, B-movie, apocalypse story (without any songs this time!) and a thrilling, minimalist survival movie on a roaring river without sight! This is two movies plopped together with the former, less enticing, story taking the majority of the film time while the latter follows along wishing it could take the spotlight on it’s own.

While I was left frustrated, I feel like I should be fair and admit it’s mostly due to the lazy comparisons to a movie I loved. Bird Box is worth checking out for Sandra Bullock’s performance and for the cinematic river scenes. Oh and the memes. ALL. OF. THE. MEMES! Plus the sub-text is fun to dissect, is it about motherhood? Or maybe racism? Maybe both?

And yet, despite Bird Box reportedly being the most viewed original movie in it’s first week, when you strip away the memes and the comparisons and you imagine a different, less-heralded actress in the starring role, it’s plain to see that Bird Box is nothing but a standard apocalypse movie that takes the worst things about The Walking Dead (too many characters, awkward acting, the endless hope of sanctuaries) and puts a blind fold over the camera sometimes.

Anna and the Apocalypse

Life begins at the end of your comfort zone, do one thing that scares you every day, live for today cause you might be dead come tomorrow. These are the #lifequotes that drive me to live my life to the fullest every day. Which is why I enjoy engaging in risky behavior such as, seeing a movie in a theater without watching a single trailer or reading a review. I know, insert shocked emoji here, am I right?

Sometimes this risk pays off in a big way, like A Quiet Place. Other times it leads to me sitting through an entire musical-zombie-Christmas movie (Yes, apparently that’s a thing), somehow too mortified to stay and yet too embarrassed to leave. And to think, I was shocked when I walked into a completely empty movie theater. That should have been my first sign.

It’s clear what Anna and the Apocalypse wants to be: “What would happen if we took the main character from Lady Bird put her in Scotland to sing and dance like La La Land? Except there’s zombies! Not like, 28 Days Later zombies, but like, Shaun of the Dead zombies! Oh and make it Christmas-y!”. In reality it ends up being a Christmas special of High School Musical with zombies. It feels like a movie studio playing Dr. Frankenstein and ends up echoing Jurassic Park, “just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should.” The movie, much like the zombies it depicts, is not natural and should have been mercy killed from the beginning.

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