Us (2019): Deconstructing Class and Race

Image result for us 2019 film poster

    “Us” is a great film that feels like an extended episode of a show. The premise is a lot of fun and it is worth seeing for Lupita Nyong’o alone as she portrays two very different characters. This story I would have rated higher if her family had been explored more or the family friends had been likable. There are also a lot of plot holes which makes this film a great idea, which is the biggest reason it is rated so high. It needed more the plot holes filled in. This film lacks the subtly of “Get Out,” which keeps it from being scored higher for me. It is still worth checking out though.

The film was written and directed by Jordan Peele.

The story follows Adelaide and her family in their summer home in Santa Cruz when their doppelgangers attack and hold them hostage.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Soundtrack – Michael Abels soundtrack is haunting. He does a great job of tying in the alien with the familiar. This is especially so after the family takes home and the use of “I Got 5 On It” throughout the film. This use of music is the greatest example of why this is a film rather than an episode of a show.

The Tension – Tension is handled really well in this film. We start out with a flashback and unknown factor builds the story from there. This was the first “Home Invasion” horror I’ve seen beyond “Halloween.” This film does a good job building tension and it truly works as a thriller, though it did not scare me. So as a horror it could have worked better but it worked wonders as thriller.

Lupita Nyong’o – Lupita Nyong’o carries this film. As Adelaide she is someone who was once captive and is now free and just wants to be comfortable. It is when Red, the person above she trapped below who upsets things with the Tethered revolution that she truly sees what reality is. This is her awakening as her “friends” are more worried about appearances and class and reflect her selfishness while Red just wants to free the Tethered. In the end she kills Red but her lie and false reality are broken as her son Jason witnesses what she did and Red’s confession.

The Family – Adelaide and her family are certainly a pro of the film. I think what would have made them work better is more interactions with others. Adelaide is the only character who feels fully fleshed out. The family mostly works as a reaction to their Tethered duplicates. Gabe is someone who finds his strength when he’s overpowered, Zora sees the big picture and uses that in regards to her environment. She wins by getting out of the house.  The youngest, Jason is the one who sees the cost of what happened in all the deaths and knows his mother is a Tethered too. His mask he wears through the film comes off when he sees the truth of her past.

Exploring Race and Class Through Symbolism – Most of the explorations of race and class come through the symbolism in the story. We see this in the fact that Red once came from above and the first thing she did was rebel. We see it her designing the suits of the Tethered like prison uniforms and the Prison Industrial Complex that primarily uses African-Americans as prison labor. We see it in how Adelaide has forgotten and become part of the rich and that she only really wakes up after destroying herself (Red). There are so many ideas here that give the movie power and move it from good to great. The biggest disadvantage here is I wanted more. “Get Out” was a much better film because it fully explored the ideas and characters presented.

The Cons:

The Reasons for the Tethered – The Tethered are a government project made to control those on Earth. We never get an explanation beyond that and that reason also doesn’t make all that much sense given we are never shown them doing that prior. How do they control those above ground? Who were they before Red? There are so many questions that remain unanswered, which helps the story and symbolism. The meaning is largely symbolism and this was a chance to get beyond that. The Tethered and their relationship to those above are the biggest reason this story isn’t rated higher. It needed more exploration to truly work.

The Family Friends – Elisabeth Moss, her husband and their daughters are lame. They were unlikable from the beginning (vain, materialistic, egotistical) so them being killed by their Tethereds meant nothing. This was the wrong way to go as we need more to build up the family…and this family does not.

I thought this film was a solidly great thriller that could have been more if it developed the characters and story. At the end of the day I only felt that I knew Adelaide and Red and for a family trapped the family has to be more than ideas…the friends have to be more than ideas. In the end concept over character is what kept it from being rated higher. Still worth checking out for any of fan of Jordan Peele. He did a great job, I just wanted more.

Final Score: 9 / 10

 

Black Panther (2018): Seeking Justice in a Broken World

       “Black Panther” is easily one of my Top 5 favorite MCU films. This is a film that expands on the lore of the MCU, has great characters with amazing arcs, some of the best action and villains in any Marvel film. It also explores deeper themes of resistance and sovereignty adding up to a movie that is well worth your time.

The film was directed by Ryan Coogler who co-wrote it with Joe Robert Cole and produced by Kevin Feige.

The story involves T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), after “Captain America: Civil War,” as he takes the mantle as King of Wakanda but suddenly finds his world transformed as an enemy from Wakanda’s past upsets the status quo they’ve known for so long. This forces him and his allies to confront the past and what the choices they make will mean for Wakanda’s future.

SPOILERS Ahead

The Pros:

Wakanda – Wakanda is such a cool country. This is a Afro-Futuristic nation with advanced technology, hidden by a cloaking device that intermixes ancient tradition with tech. Wakandans are ruled by the King and a Tribal Council whose upholding of tradition drives the primary conflict in the shaping of Wakanda’s future. Each tribe differs in ideology, whether it is defending the King, the Border or trade. This world is rich and fully realized, each tribe is distinct and I wanted to know more about their histories in the foundation and development of Wakanda.

The Characters – The characters are definitely one of the most enjoyable parts of this great film, with Boseman once again killing it as T’Challa. Whitiker is fantastic as the Tribal Shaman whose history is intertwined with Wakanda’s past sins. The other minor characters, like the tribal leader W’Kabi, also have intriguing performances as well. In many cases it is these characters prideful choices that drive the conflict that T’Challa must untangle. Below, I’m going to explore some of my favorite characters of the film, as it was who they were that drew me into the story the most.

Okoye – Okoye, played by Danai Gurira, is Wakanda’s General and she owns this role. Not only does she one of the major focuses is some breathtaking actions scenes every action scenes, we see how important her role is for her as at one point following tradition has her on the opposite side of some of our heroes. She serves the Crown and Wakanda, and that is a complicated dance when T’Challa is believed dead and the sociopath Killmonger is now King of Wakanda. I can’t wait to see more of her in future films.

Shuri – Shuri is the Princess of Wakanda and T’Challa’s sister. She is one of the most intelligent characters in the MCU, as she is the inventor of the advanced technology of Wakanda, she is very much the Tony Stark of Wakanda.  Like Stark, she doesn’t care about tradition and is far more invested in the relationships around her and the beauty of discovery and invention. She has some great scenes, and like Okoye, she was one of the main reasons to see this film. 

Ulysses Klaue – Andy Serkis has a lot of fun as the weapons merchant who is almost Joker-like in how little he cares about anything. This is a guy who is selfish, and racist, and every reason why Wakanda is isolationist. He is an insane character and his chaotic and manipulative nature leads to some explosive conflict in the first act of the film. It is also great to see Serkis in anything. 

Killmonger – Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger might be one of Marvel’s most complicated villains. This is a boy who grew up homeless in Oakland when T’Challa’s father kills his father, who was connected to the royal family through blood. He is driven by revenge from this moment on, but also by a desire to help the oppressed, driven by all he has lost. Killmonger is also a complete sociopath (his body is covered in self-inflicted scars for every person he has killed), but that doesn’t stop him from being complex. You can see where he is coming from, even if his way of going about it is all wrong.

Isolationism and its Consequences – The main idea explored is isolationism and the consequences of it is the main theme of the movie. T’Challa’s father commits a grave sin to keep Wakanda hidden from the rest of the world and it is up to T’Challa to face the consequences of his father’s sins. As Killmonger reminds T’Challa there are Africans both on the continent and in the world that Wakanda left behind. Wakanda let great evils like slavery, apartheid and countless other atrocities take place, when they could have done something to fight it. The primary conflict within Wakanda is to become an Empire to help oppressed groups (Killmonger’s vision), or stay hidden and protect Wakandan technology from those who would use it for ill (T’Challa’s father’s vision). T’Challa’s arc is finding that balance between perspectives and owning the mistakes of the past…and it is beautifully executed.

Okay:

Final Fight -The final fight is fine but compared to the rest of the film comes off as weak, especially in regards to the relationship between Okoye and W’Kabi. The emotional setup earlier in the film does not add up to the payoff during this fight, and so much more could have been done with some of the locations.

Okoye and W’Kabi – These two are star-crossed lovers who are on opposite sides and leaders of their tribes. I wanted more with both of them as they are both great actors, but we never got to see them in love, it is only ever given to us through exposition. Fully fleshing out their relationship could have given us the perfect film. 

This is a film that had the Marvel problem only in that Act 3 was still a battle, and there were some plot holes that I wish had been expanded upon. Regardless, this is a film that is deserving of all the hype and praise it has been receiving. It really is that good and I can’t wait to see what else they do with T’Challa and the Wakandans in later films. This film has social awareness you don’t always get in action films and at the core it seeks justice in a broken world.

Final Score: 9.7 / 10 One of my favorite films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

If you noticed something different about this review it is because I am now working with an editor! He is friend Brandon Cabusas and you can find him on instagram @brandoncabusas. If you need editing work, you should check him out.

The Jungle Book (2016): Great Cinematography But Extremely Boring and Slow

The Jungle Book

     As someone who wasn’t a fan of the original animated “The Jungle Book,” I think this was a movie that wasn’t made for me. The original is better though by leaps and bounds…as this at the end of the day this was a film that bored me so much I fell asleep during part of it. That hardly ever happens to me during films. So before non-spoiler thoughts, the amazing voice cast can’t save this boring film that would only really work as a movie playing in the background for kids…I don’t know how much of their attention it would be able hold of it is the core focus.

      “The Jungle Book” was directed by Jon Favreau who was also one of the producers while being written by Justin Marks. The other producer was Brigham Taylor and the film is based off the book of the same name by Rudyard Kipling.

    The story involves Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) telling the story of Mowgli (Neel Sethi) and how his arrival changed everything in the Jungle while he and the other animals must deal with the threat of Shere Khan (Idris Elba) who wants Mowgli and any who support him dead.

     The film is beautiful, but that is about the only thing positive I can say about it. The Special Effects look great and manage to make some of the action meaningful, but there isn’t much to say beyond that.

    This is a film with an amazing voice cast…Murray as Baloo, Kinglsey as Bagheera Nyong’O as Raksha and Elba as Shere Khan is brilliant casting…but the writing is so bland and the characters are so one dimensional that none of it matters. Mowgli has a few chase scenes but they hold no power since he starts out doing a fake chase and the action is so slow…it doesn’t matter if there is an amazing voice cast since they just seem to exist. Nothing meaningful really happens beyond Mowgli making new friends.

    This was an uninspired film and it doesn’t give me much hope for the other films that Disney turned live action from what were originally their animated films. I hope “Beauty and the Beast” is good, but if it is like this film it is going to be really boring and not worth anyone’s time. A story has to have meaningful action and change and I didn’t see that in Mowgli’s story or in relation to the characters around him, they are all just kind of there and there isn’t any music to give it more life like the animated film where at least music can keep a boring or simple story interesting.

    If you have kids, they might enjoy it…but honestly just take them to “Finding Dory” or get them a Pixar film or “Zootopia.” That is a much better use of their time and your time and you’ll be a lot more entertained and experience a film that would actually have purpose.

Final Score: 3 / 10

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015) – A Return to “Star Wars” Strengthened By New Characters

Star Wars Episode VII The Force Awakens

      First, I’m going to give a warning up front. This review will contain spoilers, once I get to the summary and after the jump, so I’ll post my non-spoiler thoughts here to kick off the review. The film is great, not as great as “A New Hope” and “The Empire Strikes Back” since it derives a lot from them, but it is the things that set it apart that really make it an amazing film and easily in the Top 3 films in the Series thus far. Finn and Rey are two of my favorite heroes and Kylo Ren is a great villain (though wasn’t impressed by Snoke or General Hux). The action is fast and our characters are given arcs and there are some really good payoffs, some of which aren’t derivative of the “Original Trilogy.” I’ll get into more detail below, but for these reasons it is really worth seeing.

     “The Force Awakens” was directed by J.J. Abrams who also one of the writers and producers. The other writers where Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Ardnt while the other producers were Bryan Burk and Kathleen Kennedy.

SPOILERS ahead

      The story takes place 30 years after a “Return of the Jedi” and the First Order has arisen out of the ashes of the Empire. Our new heroes Finn (John Boyega), Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) must stand together with heroes of old in the Resistance to defeat Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and the First Order.

The Pros: The World – The World is really awesome. We have The New Republic that represents the free world, the Resistance which came about because the First Order came into being and we have Luke having gone into hiding and get to see how the First Order creates Stormtroopers and how their leadership works. It’s really cool and it feels like Star Wars. Jakku is also a really cool world.

The Cinematography – The cinematography is amazing! The use CGI and models are blended together seamlessly and the fear or wonder in our characters’ eyes is highlighted beautifully. Dan Mindel really did a great job.

The Soundtrack – John Williams is at it again and I really liked his theme for Kylo Ren and his allusions to classic themes with old characters like General Leia or Han Solo. Our new characters have their own themes too and it compliments them on the their journeys.

The Characters – The characters, like “The Original Trilogy” are the strongest part of this film, especially when it comes to our new heroes who each are distinct and have their own arcs that I wanted to see and want to see now that the beginning of their arc is done.

New Heroes – The new heroes are the strongest part of this film, I enjoyed them much more than the appearance by Luke, Leia, Chewie, Han and R2 and C-3PO. They were fresh and weren’t dependable on referencing past actions as they were making history rather than being a part of living history.

BB-8 – BB-8 is adorable and super expressive in how it speaks. I didn’t put R2 or 3PO on this list because they were just small cameos. BB-8 made choices and decisions and grew attached to our new Heroes as well as being Poe’s Droid. They had a really fun relationship.

Maz Kanata – Maz is the Yoda analogue of this story as she is 1000 years old, has Luke’s old lightsaber and puts Rey on the path to become a Jedi. She’s really cool and Nupita Nyong’o gives this character so much depth. She has seen so much and her Katina has both First Order agents and Resistance members visiting. I can’t wait to see her character again as she is not a Jedi but she knows the force and it is her training that helps Rey in her fight.

Poe Dameron – Oscar Isaac is amazing! His character is smart and mocks Kylo Ren on occasion and shows how he is a good guy when he gives Finn his name and works with Finn to escape. He’s the best pilot in the Resistance and I wish we’d gotten more time with him. He deserves more exploration and was underutilized, though he does get the killing blow on the Starkiller Base.

Rey – Rey is the Luke analogue as she is the orphan on the desert planet who will become a Jedi. She like Finn though is always running. She doesn’t begin exploring her force abilities until she has to escape Kylo Ren who is holding her hostage. For this reason her arc is fantastic, she has been alone for so long waiting for her parents it is all she knows and she doesn’t want to leave that comfort. Eventually she does when Ren almost kills Finn and she realizes that it is the only way to defeat the First Order and avenge her mentor who died. She’s a great engineer too and helps the Millennium Falcon work better.

Finn – Finn is a former stormtrooper who changes sides after he is part of the assault on Jakku taht kills a Resistance sympathetic vision. It traumatizes him and he commits to helping Poe escape. Sadly he believes Poe to be dead so searches for Poe’s droid BB-8 to get him to the Resistance, which is when he meets Rey who treats him like a human being. They clash but become friends and we see that Finn is still running from his trauma. It isn’t until Kylo Ren captures Rey that chooses to stay with the Resistance and fight to rescue his friend, which leads to him nearly losing his life to Kylo Ren. John Boyega is fantastic.

Old Heroes – Our hold heroes make an appearance too! Luke appears at the very end so I’m not mentioning him and 3PO and R2 are glorified cameos and I want to explore the characters who get explored.

General Leia – Leia’s story is tragic as we see after her son falls to Dark side her marriage to Han falls apart and she starts up the Resistance again in reaction to the First Order’s rise. She still loves Han and her son Ben and her tragedy continues as Ben seems to be fully given over to the Dark side after he kills his father. What hope Leia has is that Rey will be trained by Luke and maybe through that her son can find the light again.

Chewbacca – Poor Chewie! He’s older in this and gets hurt quite a few times from Stormtroopers. Luckily he gets revenge when he and Han set the charges that help lead to the destruction of the Starkiller Base. He also save Finn’s life and help Rey and Finn escape the planet’s destruction. He stays with Rey later too as they form a bond similar to the one he has with Han.

Han Solo – This episode is the tragedy of Han as we see that he became a smuggler after his son Ben fell to the Dark Side and destroyed the new Jedi Order Luke was forming. He is running away from Leia and the Resistance but is pulled by in by Rey and Finn and helps them defeat the Starkiller Base, though it costs him his life when Kylo Ren, who is his fallen son Ben Solo, kills him, completing his fall to the Dark Side.

Villains – Kylo Ren really. Snoke and Hux felt kind of like jokes.

Kylo Ren – Kylo Ren is tragic and powerful and I really like the character. He aspires to be Darth Vader who he idealizes and we see that like Vader he is hand’s on acting as Snoke’s Dragon. He tortures Poe to find out that BB-8 holds the map to Luke and he defeats Finn when Finn tries to stop him at the end. His only loss happens after Chewie shoots him when he kills Han and after Finn injures him. Rey is the one who scars him physically and we see that they will meet again when the planet’s destruction separates them from one another. This episode is him completing his fall as he confesses to Snoke that he feels the light and his killing of his father Han is his distinguishing of it as Ben is fully killed so Kylo Ren can live. Adam Driver is great in this role and made Kylo Ren feel threatening.

Rey Versus Kylo Ren – This is the final battle and it is a lot of fun and intense. I thought Rey was overpowered for having no training but the fact that Kylo Ren was physically and emotionally injured and drained helps explain why they were equal and why she was eventually beating him. I want Ren to have his Vader moment, which he hasn’t yet. Rey was also a bit overpowered in this so I hope we see her character better balanced in this future.

Han Solo and Kylo Ren – This reveal was powerful, even though I saw it coming the moment Snoke said Han was Ren’s father. So I knew this was coming. Seeing the conflict that Kylo Ren was going through lent power to the character though and made him compelling. Seeing him free in the Dark Side after killing his father was amazing too as it was there that he snapped which contributed to Rey defeating him I think.

Okay: Starkiller Base – It is a bigger and badder Death Star that is a planet that was turned into a weapon. It’s Death Star Mark 3, which is derivative and why I’m putting it as okay. It showed lack of creativity on Hux and Snoke’s part for making it.

Okay/Con: Death of the New Republic – This would have been stronger if we had spent time with the New Republic. We never did and we don’t know their relationship to the Resistance fully so I didn’t feel the loss. The fact that the system was destroyed should have been more powerful than it felt.

The Cons: General Hux – Hux is no Tarkin. Tarkin was effective, respected Darth Vader and his power and when he destroyed Alderaan and had Leia tortured, we felt it. The same can not be said for Hux who got in pissy fits with Kylo Ren and never interacted with our heroes in any meaningful way.

Snoke – Sorry Serkis but your big giant alien is less threatening than Palpatine and he was just an old man in the “Original Trilogy” who didn’t do anything except torture Luke with lightning at the end. This character has a long way to go before I can take it seriously. I really hope Snoke is not the actual character’s name, I’m holding out for the Darth Plagueis Theory.

Derivativeness – Instead of Alderaan the New Republic System is destroyed, instead of the Death Star the Starkiller Base is destroyed (3rd Time’s the charm?), BB-8 holds secret plans versus R2-D2 holding secret plans and parental confession on a dangerous catwalk. Now that all of this is out of the way I hope the future episodes can find their own beats not derived from the Original Trilogy.

   In the end what really keeps this film from being better than “A New Hope” and “The Empire Strikes Back,” is the lack of villain effectiveness. Kylo Ren is the deadliest of them and I could never take General Hux or Snoke seriously. The loss of the New Republic wasn’t felt as we had never been their prior or met the people there, “A New Hope” was stronger since Leia’s diplomatic envoy Darth Vader destroys was an Alderaan ship and crew and we see the loss of life in her eyes and Obi-Wan’s line about hearing the silencing of millions of voices. We don’t feel the loss and that is what sets it below “A New Hope.” The characters make this film worth seeing though, as does the music and special effects. If you like “Star Wars” you should see this. It is a great film and I can’t wait to see how our new heroes’ stories unfold.

Final Score: 9.4 / 10