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

 

Mandy (2018): A Heavy Metal Revenge Fantasy

    “Mandy” is a psychedelic trip that I highly recommend. The story is simple, but so much of what makes it work is your time where you can just sit with the world and the visuals. This is a film that could have been a silent film and worked just as well given how clear each of the actions of the characters are and how it uses visuals to tell story and given depth. The film is done like a fantasy book too with each part broken into chapters. I want to see more Panos Cosmatos films after this as if he is this out there with his other stuff I’ll be in for quite an experience of cinema.

The story follows Red (Nicolas Cage) and Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) who live in the forest away from the world. Mandy is a painter and works at the nearby store while Red is a lumberjack. There world of isolation and peace quickly turns to horror when a cult leader named Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache) sets his LSD drug ridden cult on the two so he can have Mandy and make her one of his brides.

Spoilers ahead

The Pros:

The Action – The action is brutal and fits with the feel of the film of a Heavy Metal album come to life. Nicolas Cage’s Red makes his own axe to take on the bikers and the cult and systematically takes them on one by one to get to the Cult Leader Jeremiah and get his revenge for the death of Mandy. The film is really slow and reflective until it isn’t and that is when the action doesn’t let up as we go with Cage’s Red to the dark recesses of his mind where the only reason to live is vengeance.

The Cinematography – The cinematography is stunning. Scenes are draped in black and reds giving it the feel of album artwork or one of Mandy’s dark fantasy paintings. Sequences feel like dreams and it is worth the slow scenes just so you can soak it all in. The soundtrack magnifies the visuals and it plays together like an album brought to life. Benjamin Loeb truly did a fantastic job. This is easily the most visually unique film I’ve watched all year.

Red and Mandy – The core relationship of the film works. Red and Mandy are two people away from the world facing their damage and PTSD together. We see moments of that love when Mandy opens up about her story and you see it in Red’s eyes that he has done the same on multiple occasions. They only have eyes for one another and it makes the tragedy of Mandy’s murder hurt all the more. You see why Red is full of rage afterwords and why he is willing to go so far to avenge her death. The actors do an amazing job and Nicolas Cage truly inhabits his role as Red. Mandy is a strong character too who nothing can phase. When she is drugged up by Jeremiah she pulls down his illusion and laughs in his face at just how pathetic he is. He may have caught them both, but they win even though she dies.

Okay:

The Cult – The cult is alright. Jeremiah Sand is a creep who has his followers addicted to drugs and thinks he is the best thing. His narcissism works. The problem was I didn’t understand why a bunch of Biker Dudes would follow and become demons for him. They are nearly supernatural in how they are presented and I didn’t get his control over them, especially as any skeptic like Mandy will just laugh in his face. They worked as an antagonist, but in hindsight I would have built them up more. They deserved to be a great threat, while I largely accepted them as working alright but not great.

The Cons:

Deeper Meaning – This is a simple revenge story. What would have made it make my Top 5 to end the year would have been seeking some deeper meaning. There is the potential for deeper meaning there, but I wanted it explored more. I wanted to see Red’s love for Mandy explored more deeply or the Cult Leader’s twisted love for himself or him feeling he didn’t have it. Love could have been expressed as the theme better, or revenge but we don’t get that. This film is still great, but what keeps it from crossing that line to perfection is that lack of clarity in a major theme. I wanted more story and motivation and the film wasn’t ready to give that.

This is a film that will not be everyone’s jam. The violence is extreme when the story gets around to it and it does start out very slow. You have to be invested in the music and visuals and care about Red and Mandy to truly love this film. Luckily all those things worked for me. This is a film that may need multiple viewings as there are a lot elements going on. If any of the things I’ve described above are your jam you should check out this surreal horror fantasy. If the competition wasn’t so steep this year it might have made my Top 5 of 2018. This has been a great year for film.

Final Score: 9.5 / 10. More story and the cult getting more development would have made it perfect.

War for the Planet of the Apes (2017): Growing Beyond Caesar

“War for the Planet of the Apes” is easily the best of the Franchise. This is a film series I reviewed back when the blog was beginning that shows just how strong the new series has held up (Given “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is number 1 for me until today and “Dawn” is in the Top 5″ of the series). This is a series that deserves far more credit than it has been given as it has tacked social and political issues while never forgetting the character arc of Caesar which drives the series to it’s conclusion in this film (please no more after this). This is the perfect end as Caesar’s arc is completed and we see how this series ties into the classic series completing the time cycle that has played throughout all these films. I’ll explain more in below, but for now, this a series that might make my Top 5 for this year and is easily the best of the series, both Classic and New.

‘War for the Planet of the Apes” was directed by Matt Reeves, who co wrote it along with Mark Bomback with the producers being Peter Chernin, Dylan Clark, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver.

The story involves the last remnants of humanity seeking to annihilate the apes under the Colonel as the virus takes away speech and the human and ape populations are on the risk of extinction, as Caesar seeks peace and home away from the struggle.

SPOILERS

The Pros: The World – The reboot world has been nothing but good for me as a re-imagining of the apocalypse. We get to see the forest slowly take over the human settlements as the apes gain more power through the spread of the Simian Flu (the virus that kills off humanity and also has other affects). Hell, there is whole mini-series before “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” that shows the viruses decimation of mankind. It is tragic and beautiful and this film is the final payoff where militaristic mankind losing itself to the virus faces off against the apes set to inherit the world.

The Poisonous of Nationalistic Ideology – The villain of this film is portrayed through the Colonel in Woody Harrelson who is ready to kill humanity when they lose speech, which the Simian Flu has been causing since dawn. This leads to his enslavement of the apes and his turning on his own people who won’t kill their own as he sees this separation as speech as something worth ending, even if it is his son. This is powerful as he has lost himself to his belief and was willing to kill family for it, even as he became it and kills himself and all his abuse of the apes is for nothing…he is a powerless man in a world that has left him behind and he is tragic, but not sympathetic, a good villain.

Caesar and his Team – Caesar and his team are great. You have Maurice as the heart who teaches sign language to the human Nova (who Caesar kills in self-defense), you have Rocket you has been around as the Scotty/Chekov always standing by his captain and Luca, a hardened warrior who finds heart and dies to protect Caesar, and Nova herself who comes to love her adopted family and helps save the apes from the Human Nationalists.

The Ghost of Hate – Caesar has dreams of Kuba as his desire to kill the Colonel (and revenge against humanity for the death of his son too) consumes him. It is powerful and Serkis shows so much emotion in his lines and visions of Kuba telling him to die or to get revenge. This ghost haunts him until he finds an identity beyond himself and Nationalism. In the end, Caesar grows beyond his tribe.

A World Beyond Caesar – A major arc of this series is showing that the apes have an arc beyond Caesar, as does humanity. Humanity is killed because of their fight against themselves, not against the apes. The apes find peace and Caesar dies at the Oasis. Caesar’s arc is complete where no longer has hate and helped his people find more, as Nova is part of their tribe. This is powerful as it shows even in that Caesar is dead and humanity killed itself, it paradoxically lives on in the best of the survivors via Nova. Even when hope is dead, it can still live on.

Okay/Con: A Too Long Ending – This movie has a bit of “Return of the King” going on, as there are a few points it could have ended…Caesar spares the Colonel, the apes escape the prison, the apes survive the avalanche, and finally, the apes find the Oasis. Either of these could have been when Caesar dies from his injuries but they wait for the Oasis. I didn’t hate it, but it did show how long this movie went.

This is a film that might make my Top 5 at the end of the year and is the best of the “Planet of the Apes” Franchise.” It beats Rises as we are given reasons to sympathize with the villains and unlike “Dawn” the stakes and cost are that much higher. This is a wonderful end to an amazing Franchise and I hope they don’t do anything else with it, as there are enough Easter eggs here to tie into the original “Planet of the Apes” that if you want to catch, I’d advise you see as they only add to the amazing story that takes place here.

Also, here is my past retrospect of the “Planet of the Apes Franchise”: https://cameronmoviesandtv.wordpress.com/2014/07/11/planet-of-the-apes-franchise-retrospect-worst-to-best-of-the-franchise/

Final Score: 9.8 / 10 The best of the “Planet of the Apes Franchise.”