★★★ / ★★★★
Although the final reveal is likely to be apparent during the first act to the more seasoned fans of the horror genre, Jordan Peele’s “Us” remains to be an entertaining flick with curious ideas about doppelgängers and imagined goings-on right under our feet. It is well-paced, suspenseful and thrilling at times, and there is care put into its images, particularly during an early sequence in which we asked to follow a little girl making her way from the loud and busy attractions of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk toward a creepy, silent house of mirrors that directly faces the beach. This traumatic event propels the film’s plot.
Lupita Nyong’o plays Adelaide, a former dancer whose past trauma continues to impact her every day life. She is on summer vacation with her husband (Winston Duke) and two children (Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex) at their family beach house which just so happens to be only minutes away from the boardwalk. A series of bizarre coincides compels Adelaide to believe eventually that something terrible, perhaps even her greatest fear, is about to occur. Build-up is one of the picture’s greatest strengths but not all elements introduced fit perfectly into the narrative.
I enjoyed Peele’s active use of the camera. Even when a scene is taking place at the beach in the middle of a crowd, it pushes the viewer to feel uneasy. Despite a beautiful scenery, notice its generous use of uncomfortable close-ups. During tracking shots, it gives the impression that we are seeing the images from the perspective of a creep or stalker. There is even detachment in the content of conversations between people who are supposed to be friends. Clearly, the sequence is designed to make the audience feel as though an external force is certain to disrupt a peaceful and happy occasion. And so we are on toes. We anticipate that something will happen. Peele dances gleefully with the tease. He knows the difference between suspense and thrill.
Particularly glaring to me is in the way the family members interact with one another. I never had a sense that the Wilsons are a real family. I considered the acting. I watched closely as Nyong’o and Duke navigate their way through their characters’ disagreements. I observed Joseph and Alex’ connection as siblings and the manner in which their characters relate to their parents. It does not feel like a convincing family. It comes across scripted, fake, forced at times. I wondered if a few more rounds of rehearsal might have helped to solidify a level of believability.
And then it occurred to me: Perhaps the disconnect is part of the point. What social commentary, if any, is being broached regarding a black family whose story is being told in a horror film of a sizable budget? What is it saying about our fear of The Other in the context of a mainstream and commercial project assuming that the viewer is not black nor an American? It’s curious to think about. Then another layer: The opening title card claims that there are numerous underground railroads and tunnels across the United States. Their function is mostly unknown.
While I appreciated its ideas, most of them do not get in the way of telling a horror-thriller. There are powerful images like close-ups of scissors being used as a threat… and yet there is not one close-up shot of the blades piercing the flesh. This is fresh because too many generic horror pictures appear to be interested only in showing off gore, practical effects, or (the very worst) CGI blood. As for its undercooked ideas, particularly the doppelgängers’ national plan, a few more passes of the script might have provided us stronger, better answers.
Black Panther (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The Blackness of “Black Panther” will rub some people the wrong way, for no good objective reason other than the personal variety, but it is exactly why I loved the film, both as a superhero film and as a picture that proudly represents persons of color, black or otherwise. Although superhero movies often feature action-packed sequences set in African or Asian countries, the sub-genre is often told through the white lens in order to appeal to the common masses. So-called representation is relegated to foreign texts on billboards of futuristic-looking cities or a black extra reacting to wild goings-on—often solely for mere comedic effect.
And so this is one of the central reasons why Ryan Coogler’s film is worth seeing: people of color and where they live are not utilized as decoration. Rather, they are placed front and center so that the audience is confronted by colored faces, colored lives, colored lifestyles. We get to taste the specific flavors of a fictional Wakandan culture. For instance: their rituals prior to and during the coronation of a new leader; how they relate to one another on personal and professional levels; what is important to them as individuals and as a unit; their opinions and goals regarding how to build a better relationship with the rest of the world given that the latter is less technologically advanced and leading nations have a tendency toward maintaining the cycle of oppression especially toward people of color.
Clearly a standout from other Marvel outings, I enjoyed how the film actively builds an aura of intrigue rather than simply going through yet another episode in which a special item must be acquired from the wrong hands in order to defeat the villain of the day. This is most apparent during the first act. It is interesting that T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) already knows who he is with or without the Black Panther costume. And so we avoid going through the same beats and rhythms—thereby the same trappings—that have become the norm from the genre. Instead, characters worth paying attention to and understanding are introduced: Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) the undercover spy, Okoye (Danai Gurira) the loyal warrior, and Shuri (Letitia Wright) the brilliant inventor. One can construct an argument that these strong individuals elevate the protagonist because they challenge him in their own ways.
There is beauty in color. For instance, notice articles of clothing and how they vary depending on each tribe of Wakanda. When there is cause for celebration, shades of red and yellow dominate coupled with ostentatious angular patterns. When there is a professional meeting, cooler colors like blue or green are employed. Patterns become less noticeable while finer textures move to the forefront. An exception, perhaps most appropriately because they are considered to be the outcast of the five Wakandan tribes, is the Jabari (led by M’Baku played with great charm by Winston Duke). Their costumes are dominated by more neutral colors like gray and brown. The styles and textures of their clothes lean toward more simple designs. The visual diversity is intoxicating; there is almost always something worthy to inspect.
But since the picture is an action film, does it deliver the goods? Indeed it does. While wall-to-wall action is not at play here, I found its restraint most admirable. It is equally capable of talking about ideas, at times relating to issues plaguing America today, and providing thrilling and entertaining sequences. A standout takes place in the streets of Busan, South Korea as Black Panther and his colleagues must get their hands on an infamous arms dealer (Andy Serkis, a joy to watch) and bring him back to Wakanda for trial. Meanwhile, our heroes have not yet an inkling that the real threat is the man, appropriately named Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), the arms dealer has chosen to align himself with.
“Black Panther” commands a freshness that numerous superhero films do not possess. It reminded me of James Gunn’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” in how nearly every scene is intoxicating both in terms of content and visuals, its wonderful ability to balance humor and dramatic personal stakes, and how it opens up a world of possibilities. Credit to the writers, Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, for an intelligent screenplay. Notice how the essence of just about every scene manages to flow into the next one. It establishes a sense of cohesion. Ryan Coogler, a name to take note and remember because his resulting projects so far have been of high caliber. I look forward to what he can do next.
★★ / ★★★★
Bill Marks (Liam Neeson), a federal air marshal who was a cop for twenty-five years but recently discharged, gets a text from one of the passengers despite a supposedly secure network. The text suggests that Bill ought to start his timer because someone will die every twenty minutes unless a hundred fifty million dollars is transferred into an account. The plane has plenty of suspects, from the woman who makes a last-minute change of seats (Julianne Moore), a hot-tempered cop (Corey Stoll), to the air marshall himself.
It is somewhat of a feat that “Non-Stop,” directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, is able to juggle the constantly changing plot. There is a lot going on but it never comes across messy or nonsensical. Because it moves quickly and smoothly, its limitations consistently fade into the background as we wonder about the true identity of the killer.
The picture excels during the silent moments. Scenes that consists only of our protagonist looking very worried yet determined while text messages are shown on screen create a foreboding atmosphere. There is something about the contrast between the silent, sleeping passengers and the increasing level of threat coming from a smart phone. Neeson does a commendable job in communicating an escalating level of danger. We feel his character always thinking but at the same time he is very human. We are allowed to catch him in small moments where even he is not certain whether a course of action will prove fruitful.
Though it has amusing moments, the dialogue in the final third is somewhat of a drag. I suppose it is necessary that the villain must reveal his or her endgame but delivering a speech in the middle of chaos comes across a bit cartoonish, as if we were watching a bad superhero flick. The revelation ought to have been executed in a more subtle way by avoiding forced speeches altogether.
The identity of the perpetrator is not easy to figure out. I guessed incorrectly. I noticed I was always on my toes, always changing who I thought had a good enough motive to try to pull off an act of terrorism. The movie benefits greatly from the casting. There are a number of familiar faces here—but not too familiar to be distracting—who can pull off being antagonists or at least worthy of being suspected.
Based on the screenplay by John W. Richardson, Chris Roach, and Ryan Engle, “Non-Stop” is somewhat of a misnomer—which is a good thing. Director Collet-Serra knows when it is worth slowing the pace a bit and when it is time to go on overdrive. That way, the picture is never a bore to sit through; there is always a question hanging on the back of our minds. If only the final third were written in a more understated way, it might have reached a level above conventionality.
12 Years a Slave (2013)
★★★★ / ★★★★
After sharing a meal with two men who promised a well-paying job, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) wakes up in a dark room with chains around his limbs. As he tries to piece together what happened the night prior, two men he has never seen before go through the door and one of them claims that Solomon is to be sold for the right price. Solomon insists he is not a slave, that he is in fact a free man who has a wife and two children waiting for him in Saratoga Springs, New York. The man chooses not to hear another word and soon Solomon, renamed Platt, is taken to New Orleans to work in a plantation.
Perhaps the most interesting and effective technique utilized in “12 Years a Slave,” directed by Steve McQueen and based on Solomon Northup’s autobiography, is a certain level of detachment when it comes to its treatment of the characters. Notice that there is barely a trace of a character arc with respect to the protagonist. Instead, emphasis is placed on the grueling circumstances that Solomon, as well as the other black men and women he comes across, is forced to endure for more than a decade while keeping in mind that there is a psychological complexity to white folks who deem themselves superior. A shameful time in American history is told through a microcosm.
The scenes involving humiliation make a lasting impression. It is most appropriate that the picture concerns itself with details, from naked black men and women standing side-by-side while being examined by potential buyers to being woken in the middle of the night just so their owners can watch them dance. We are encouraged to think about the mindset of a group of American people who once thought it was morally acceptable to treat their fellow human beings as objects or playthings.
To question whether the film’s level of violence is suitable to the story is to miss the point completely. The brutal lashings—which are very explicit, from the sharp snap of the whip to the droplets of blood in the air upon impact on the body—are not meant to be pretty as the subject is not meant to be digestible. It is supposed to make us uncomfortable; it is supposed to be upsetting; it is supposed to make us angry. The level of violence is never gratuitous because it functions as a symbol of the white man exercising his power over his property, the taming of what he considers to be his animal when it does not do what he wishes.
Ejiofor’s face is one I can study for days. His approach to the character is silent indignation. The script requires scenes in which he must emote in big ways that our complete attention is demanded but his performance is most interesting when he is subdued. The decision to compartmentalize Solomon’s suffering is one that feels loyal to an educated character with many thoughts, just waiting for the right opportunity to escape.
Songs and music being allowed to bleed from one scene to another is a stroke of genius. It is not simply done for the sake of flow, as a lesser film would have, but to remind us that the horrific occurrences from one moment in time is carried through the next—just as how the body may heal from physical wounds but the memory of how one gets that injury and how it feels afterwards, a psychic scar, is remembered with clarity. The events of the past are placed in a modern context: that slavery in America is one that should never be forgotten.
Every year, there are only but a few movies that ought to be remembered—despite whether it should win accolades or whether it ultimately did (or did not)—and “12 Years a Slave,” based on the screenplay by John Ridley, is deserving of that honor. It is admirable because it is uncompromising, unrelenting, and a rewarding piece of work.