Horror Film Review: Us (dir by Jordan Peele)


“They’re us,” a child says in Jordan Peele’s second film, Us.

And indeed, they are.  Us suggests that everyone has at least one doppelganger, living underground in conditions of absolutely misery and awkwardly imitating the same lives as those above ground, just without any of the rewards that those of us above-ground take for granted.  Those underground are known as the Tethered, because they’re permanently tied to those of us above ground.  Of course, what’s easily overlooked is that we’red tied to them as well.  Or, at least, we are until someone picks up a knife or a pair of scissors and violently severs the connection.

It’s probably not a coincidence that the film’s title — Us — can just as easily be read as U.S, as in the United States.  Jordan Peele may have said that he wanted Us to be a full-on horror film, as opposed to Get Out‘s mix of comedy, horror, and social commentary, but Us definitely has its political subtext, with the Tethered meant to stand in for every marginalized group that has been pushed underground by American society.  Though the film may have been inspired by an episode of The Twilight Zone, it actually has more in common with the classic British shocker, Death Line (a.k.a. Raw Meat.)  There’s not a huge amount of difference between the largely mute Tethered and the pathetic cannibal in Death Line who, after growing up in the British Underground, is capable of only telling his victims to “Mind the doors.”

If nothing else, Us proves that Jordan Peele actually is a good filmmaker with a firm grasp on how to make an effective horror movie.  Get Out was good but also, I think, a bit overpraised by mainstream critics who often seemed to not realize just how much, in their attempts to make sure that we understood just how much they loved and understood the movie, they sounded like Bradley Whitford bragging about how he would have voted for Obama a third time.  When Us came out, a lot of viewers were waiting to see if Peele’s second film could possibly live up to all the hype surrounding its director and, for the most part, it does.

Political subtext aside, this is the all-out horror film that Peele promised, full of jump scares, disturbing imagery, and just enough humor to keep things from getting too unbearably nightmarish.  (As bad as you might feel for Elisabeth Moss’s character and her family, it’s hard not to appreciate the irony of the film’s Alexa-substitute misunderstanding a command to call the police.)  Interestingly enough, the Tethered are pretty much homicidal as soon as they come above ground.  This isn’t a case where a tragic misunderstanding leads to bloodshed that could have been avoided.  No, this is a case where the Tethered have spent decades trapped and out-of-sight and they’re pissed off about it.  Just because the Tethered may be us, that doesn’t mean that they’re going to have any sympathy for us when they finally do track us down.  In the style of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Have Eyes, Us follows a perfect family as they eventually find themselves resorting to the same violence as the Tethered, in an attempt to save not only their lives but also the lifestyle that they’ve come to take for granted.  The Tethred are us indeed.

The film is well-acted, with Lupita Nyong’o standing out as both the mother of an imperiled family and her doppelganger, who has spent years underground and who is one of the few Tethered to be able to speak.  Of course, there’s a twist at the end of the movie and I won’t ruin it here, other than to say that it’s effectively done and will actually make you reconsider everything that you’ve just seen.

Us is another triumph from Jordan Peele.  Even more importantly, it’s an undeniably effective horror film.

Film Review: Avengers: Endgame (dir by the Russo Brothers)


(Minor Spoilers Below!  Read at your own risk.)

So, how long does the no spoiler rule for Avengers: Endgame apply?  There’s so much that I want to say about this film but I know that I shouldn’t because, even though it had a monstrous opening weekend, there are still people out there who have not had a chance to see the film.  And while this review will have minor spoilers because, otherwise, it would be impossible to write, I’m not going to share any of the major twists or turns.

I will say this.  I saw Avengers: Endgame last night and it left me exhausted, angry, sad, exhilarated, and entertained.  It’s a gigantic film, with a plot that’s as messy and incident-filled as the cinematic universe in which it takes place.  More than just being a sequel or just the latest installment in one of the biggest franchises in cinematic history, Avengers: Endgame is a monument to the limitless depths of the human imagination.  It’s a pop cultural masterpiece, one that will make you laugh and make you cheer and, in the end, make you cry.  It’s a comic book film with unexpected emotional depth and an ending that will bring a tear to the eye of even the toughest cynic.  By all logic, Avengers: Endgame is the type of film that should collapse under its own weight but instead, it’s a film that thrives on its own epic scope.  It’s a three-hour film that’s never less than enthralling.  Even more importantly, it’s a gift to all of us who have spent the last ten years exploring the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The film itself starts almost immediately after the “Snap” that ended Avengers: Infinity War and we watch as Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner, returning to the franchise after being absent in the previous film) finds himself powerless to keep his family from disintegrating.  After often being dismissed as the Avengers’s weak link, both Clint Barton and Jeremy Renner come into their own in the film.  As one of two members of the Avengers who does not have super powers, Clint serves as a everyperson character.  He’s a reminder that there’s more at stake in Endgame than just the wounded pride of a few super heroes.  When Thanos wiped out half the universe, he didn’t just wipe out Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, and Groot.  He also left very real wounds that will never be healed.

When the film jumps forward by five yeas, we discover that the world is now a much darker place.  When we see New York, the once vibrant city is now gray and deserted.  Our surviving heroes have all dealt with the Snap in their own way.  Clint is now a vigilante, killing anyone who he feels should have been wiped out by Thanos but wasn’t.  Thor (Chris Hemsworth) drinks and eats and feels sorry for himself.  Captain America (Chris Evans) attends support groups and, in one nicely done scene, listens as a man talks about his fear of entering into his first real relationship in the years since “the Snap.”  Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is living as a recluse and is still blaming himself.  Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) is now an avuncular, huge, and very green scientist.  Only Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) remains convinced that the Snap can somehow be undone.  She’s right, of course.  But doing so will involve some unexpected sacrifices and a lot of time travel….

And that’s as much as I can tell you, other than to say that the film takes full advantage of both the time travel aspects (yes, there are plenty of Back to the Future jokes) and its high-powered cast.  With our heroes — which, along with the usual Avengers, also include Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and Rocket Racoon (Bradley Cooper) — hopping through time and space, we get a chance to revisit several of the films that led up to Endgame and it’s a thousand times more effective than it has any right to be.  Yes, one could argue that the cameos from Robert Redford, Tom Hiddleston, Hayley Atwell, and others were essentially fan service but so what?  The fans have certainly earned it and the MCU has earned the chance to take a look back at what it once was and what it has since become.

Indeed, Avengers: Endgame would not work as well as it does if it hadn’t been preceded by 21 entertaining and memorable movies.  It’s not just that the MCU feels like a universe that it as alive as our own, one that is full of wonder, mystery, sadness, and love.  It’s also that we’ve spent ten years getting to know these characters and, as a result, many of them are much more than just “super heroes” to us.  When Tony Stark and Captain America argue over whether it’s even worth trying to undo the Snap, it’s an effective scene because we know the long and complicated history of their relationship.  When the Avengers mourn, we mourn with them because we know their pain.  We’ve shared their triumphs and their failures.  Tony Stark may be a guy in an iron suit but he’s also a man struggling with his own demons and guilt.  Steve Rogers may be a nearly 100 year-old super solider but he’s also every single person who has struggled to make the world a better place.  As strange as it may be to say about characters known as Iron Man, Captain America, and the Black Widow, we feel like we know each and every one of them.  We care about them.

Needless to say, the cast is huge and one of the great things about the film is that previously underused or underestimated performers — like Jeremy Renner, Scarlett Johansson, Paul Rudd, Don Cheadle, and Karen Gillan — all finally get a chance to shine.  As always, the heart of the film belongs to Chris Evans while Robert Downey, Jr. provides just enough cynicism to keep things from getting to superficially idealistic.  Chris Hemsworth and Mark Ruffalo get most of the film’s big laughs, each playing their borderline ludicrous characters with just the right combination of sincerity and humor.  Of course, Josh Brolin is back as well and he’s still perfectly evil and arrogant as Thanos.  But whereas Thanos was the focus of Infinity War, Endgame focuses on the heroes.  If Infinity War acknowledged that evil can triumph, Endgame celebrates the fact that good never surrenders.

As Endgame came to an end, I did find myself wondering what the future is going to hold for the MCU.  A part of me wonders how they’re going to top the past ten years or if it’s even possible to do so.  Several mainstays of the MCU say goodbye during Endgame and it’s hard to imagine the future films without their presence.  It’s been hinted that Captain Marvel is going to be one of the characters holding the next phase of the  MCU together and, fortunately, Brie Larson is a quite a bit better in Endgame than she was in her previous MCU film.  Hopefully, regardless of what happens in the future, Marvel and Disney will continue to entrust their characters to good directors, like the Russo Brothers, James Gunn, and Taika Waititi.  (Wisely, Disney reversed themselves and rehired James Gunn for the next Guardians of the Galaxy film.  Of course, Gunn never should have been fired in the first place….)

And that’s really all I can say about Avengers: Endgame right now, other than to recommend that you see it.  In fact, everyone in the world needs to hurry up and see it so we can finally start talking about the film without having to post spoiler warnings!

For now, I’ll just say that Avengers: Endgame is a powerful, emotional, and entertaining conclusion to one of the greatest cinematic sagas ever.

Black Panther Dominates The Black Reel Nominations


The Black Reel Nominations were announced today, with Black Panther picking up a record 17 nominations!  Coming in second was If Beale Street Could Talk, which received 14 nominations while Spike Lee’s BlackKklansman received 11 nominations.

Here’s a full list of the nominees:

Outstanding Motion Picture
Black Panther
BlacKkKlansman
Green Book
If Beale Street Could Talk
Widows

Outstanding Actor
Chadwick Boseman | Black Panther
Stephan James | If Beale Street Could Talk
Michael B. Jordan | Creed II
LaKeith Stanfield | ​Sorry to Bother You
John David Washington | BlacKkKlansman

Outstanding Actress
Viola Davis | Widows
Regina Hall | Support the Girls
Kiki Layne | If Beale Street Could Talk
Zoe Renee | Jinn
Amandla Stenberg | ​The Hate U Give

Outstanding Director
Ryan Coogler | Black Panther
Barry Jenkins | If Beale Street Could Talk
Spike Lee | BlacKkKlansman
Steve McQueen | Widows
Boots Riley | ​Sorry to Bother You

Outstanding Supporting Actor
Mahershala Ali | Green Book
Brian Tyree Henry | If Beale Street Could Talk
Russell Hornsby | The Hate U Give
Michael B. Jordan | Black Panther
Daniel Kaluuya | Widows

Outstanding Supporting Actress
Danai Gurira | Black Panther
Regina King | If Beale Street Could Talk
Simone Missick | Jinn
Lupita Nyong’o | Black Panther
Letitia Wright | Black Panther

Outstanding Screenplay
Black Panther
BlacKkKlansman
If Beale Street Could Talk
​Sorry to Bother You
Widows

Outstanding Ensemble
Black Panther
BlacKkKlansman
If Beale Street Could Talk
​Sorry to Bother You
Widows

Outstanding Documentary
Amazing Grace
Hale County This Morning, This Evening
Minding the Gap
Quincy
Whitney

Outstanding Foreign Language/ World Cinema Motion Picture
Green Days by the River (Trinidad & Tobago)
Lionheart (Nigeria)
Rafiki (Kenya)
Vaya (South Africa)
Where Hands Touch (UK)

Outstanding Voice Performance
Mahershala Ali | Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Taraji P. Henson | Ralph Breaks the Internet
Brian Tyree Henry | Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Samuel L. Jackson | Incredibles 2
Shamiek Moore | Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Outstanding Score
Black Panther
BlacKkKlansman
Creed II
The Hate U Give
If Beale Street Could Talk

Outstanding Original Song
“All the Stars” (Black Panther) | Kendrick Lamar & SZA
“I’ll Fight” (RBG) | Jennifer Hudson
“Love Lies” (Love, Simon) | Khalid & Normani
“Pray For Me” (Black Panther) | The Weeknd & Kendrick Lamar
“We Won’t Move” (The Hate U Give) | Arlissa

Outstanding Independent Feature
A Boy. A Girl. A Dream.
Jinn
Monsters and Men
Roxanne Roxanne
Yardie

Outstanding Independent Documentary
Basquiat: Rage to Riches
Lorainne Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/ Feeling
Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me

Outstanding Short
Funk Force | Desmond Levi Jackson
Hair Wolf | Mariama Diallo
Jump | Kofi Siriboe, director
The Tale of Four | Gabourey Sidibe, director
WTFIMH: What the F*ck Is Mental Health | Kofi Siriboe, director

Outstanding Emerging Director
Idris Elba | Yardie
Reinald Marcus Green | Monsters and Men
Rashida Jones | Quincy
Nijla Mu’min | Jinn
Boots Riley | ​Sorry to Bother You

Outstanding Breakthrough Performance, Male
Daveed Diggs | Blindspotting
Winston Duke | Black Panther
Donald Glover | Solo: A Star Wars Story
Brian Tyree Henry | If Beale Street Could Talk
John David Washington | BlacKkKlansman

Outstanding Breakthrough Performance, Female
Cynthia Erivo | Bad Times at the El Royale
Laura Harrier | BlacKkKlansman
Kiki Layne | If Beale Street Could Talk
Zoe Renee | Jinn
Letitia Wright | Black Panther

Outstanding First Screenplay
Blindspotting
Jinn
Monsters and Men
Roxanne Roxanne
Sorry to Bother You

Outstanding Cinematography
Black Panther
BlacKkKlansman
If Beale Street Could Talk
Widows
A Wrinkle In Time

Outstanding Costume Design
Black Panther
BlacKkKlansman
If Beale Street Could Talk
Sorry to Bother You
A Wrinkle In Time

Outstanding Production Design
Black Panther
BlacKkKlansman
Green Book
If Beale Street Could Talk
A Wrinkle In Time

Lisa Reviews Avengers: Infinity War (dir by Joe and Anthony Russo)


(Warning: There are spoilers in this review.  They’re not necessarily huge spoilers but they’re there.  Read at your own risk.)

Avengers: Infinity War is a lot of things.  It’s big, it’s thrilling, it’s emotional, it’s colorful, it’s loud, it’s flamboyant, and, clocking in at two and a half hours, it’s occasionally a bit exhausting.  It’s overwhelming but it’s never boring.  It’s a nearly perfect example of pure cinema, where the story is less about what happens and more how it’s told. It’s a tribute to not just the Marvel Cinematic Universe but also to the audiences who have been flocking to each movie since Iron Man was first released way back in 2008.  Avengers: Infinity War is a pop art masterpiece, one that provides the first part of a climax to a saga that’s been unfolding for ten years.

In the days leading up to the release of Avengers: Infinity War, the main selling point was the assumption that this movie would feature every single character that’s been introduced as a citizen of the MCU so far.  Though the film comes close to including everyone, there are still a few characters who are notable for their absence.  Ant-Man and the Wasp are nowhere to be seen.  None of the Marvel Television characters show up, which is a shame because I’m sure Jessica Jones would have had some choice words about the potential end of the universe.  Two familiar SHIELD agents make a brief appearance, though you have to wonder where they were when New York and Wakanda were being invaded.

That said, all of the big heroes show up.  Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) flies into space with Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland).  Thor (Chris Hemsworth) teams up with Rocket Racoon and Groot (voiced by Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel, respectively).  When Wakanda is attacked, Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Captain America (Chris Evans), The Falcon (Anthony Mackie), White Wolf (Sebastian Stan), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Rhodey (Don Cheadle), and Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) are all present to defend it.  Meanwhile, Vision (Paul Bettany) and Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) continue to pursue their odd relationship while Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) search for Gamora’s father, Thanos (Josh Brolin).

It’s a packed film and the fact that it works as well as it does is a testament to the power of perfect casting and movie star charisma.  At this point, we feel as if we know these characters.  We know that Tony Stark is going to be haunted by what happened the last time Thanos’s minions involved New York.  We know that Spider-Man is going to be desperate to prove that he belongs with the adults, just as we know that Dr. Strange isn’t going to be particularly impressed with anyone he meets.  Needless to say, some characters get more screen time than others.  Despite a good deal of the film taking place in Wakanda, Black Panther largely stays in the background.  I personally wish that both Natasha and Captain America had been given a bit more to do.  Considering just how talented both Anthony Mackie and Don Cheadle are, it’s a shame that neither one of them ever gets to do much in these films.  At the same time, Infinity Wars allows both Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany to come into their own and Chris Hemsworth again shows that he may be the most underrated star in the MCU.  I’ve read a lot of criticism of certain actions taken by Peter Quill towards the end of the film but actually, it’s exactly what you would expect his character to do in the situation and, up until that moment, Chris Pratt is a welcome presence.  It’s important to have someone around who appreciates good music and who can make you laugh, especially considering that Thanos is planning to wipe out 50% of the universe’s population…

Oh yes, Thanos.  After spending years lurking in the background, Thanos finally steps forward in Infinity War.  In fact, it can be argued that Avengers: Infinity War is actually much more of a Thanos film than an Avengers film.  While our heroes are continually spending the film trying to catch up to Thanos and reacting to his latest action, Thanos is always one step ahead.  Thanos is the one who steers the narrative and, for once, you really do believe that an MCU villain views the heroes as being mere distractions.  Thanos is the one on a quest and the film follows him through every step of his search.  In fact, the film’s most emotional moments belong to Thanos.  For all the death and destruction to be found in the film’s surprisingly dark narrative, Thanos is the only character to ever shed a tear.  Like all great villains, Thanos doesn’t view himself as being evil.  Instead, Thanos speaks very sincerely of his desire to bring balance to the universe.  The scary thing about Thanos isn’t that he claims that he’s being merciful when he slaughters millions of beings.  The scary thing about Thanos is that believes it.

Thanos, you see, is a bit of an intergalactic environmentalist.  As he explains it, the universe only has a finite number of resources.  By killing half of the universe’s population, he is ensuring that the other half will be able to survive in peace and harmony.  Most people would call Thanos’s actions genocidal but Thanos would probably say that he’s merely making the difficult decisions that others don’t have the courage or intelligence to make.  It may all sound rather far-fetched and melodramatic until you consider that, just last week, bureaucrats and doctors in the UK decided it would be better to starve a sick infant to death rather than allow his parents to take him to be treated in another country.  With his mix of narcissism and absolutely belief in his own moral certitude, Thanos is a far more familiar villain than a lot of viewers might want to admit.  As opposed to the forgettable villains who have appeared in so many MCU films, Thanos is a compelling and complicated figure.  It’s interesting to note that two of the best performances of the year so far were given by actors appearing as villains in MCU films, Michael B. Jordan in Black Panther and Josh Brolin in this one.

As befits the film’s subject matter, Infinity War is a sprawling film, one that skips from world to world.  The visuals are frequently spectacular, as are the many battles.  From the opening attack on New York to the final battles in Wakanda and in space, the action is non-stop and thrilling.  (It helps that, as opposed to some of the previous MCU films, it’s always clear who is fighting who and why they’re fighting.)  For me, though, the most memorable scenes are the scenes where Thanos looks and considers the worlds that he’s destroyed.  There’s a scene where an exhausted Thanos rests on a placid planet and it’s one of the strongest images in the history of the MCU.

I’ve been told that I shouldn’t worry too much about all of the characters who are killed over the course of Infinity War.  From what I’ve been told, it’s apparently something of a tradition in Marvel comics to kill off a bunch of recognizable characters and then have them come back to life an issue or two later.  And the fact that the sequel to Infinity War has already been filmed and is set to released next year leads me to suspect that nothing’s permanent.  I mean, if all of these people are really dead, there aren’t going to be many heroes left to make any more movies about.  That said, I still got far more emotional than I probably should have at some of the unexpected demises.  Especially … well, no.  I won’t say the name.  But seriously, it was upsetting.

2018 is shaping up to be the year of Marvel.  So far, Marvel has released two of the best films of the year.  To be honest, a film as huge as Infinity War shouldn’t have worked and yet, it does.  It’s a masterpiece of pop art.*

* For a totally different response to Avengers: Infinity War, check out Ryan’s review by clicking here!