Friday, March 22, 2019

JORDAN PEELE DELIVERS THE THRILLS AND LAUGHS IN HIS NEW HORROR MOVIE "US"

Original caricature by Jeff York
of Shahadi Wright Joseph, Lupita Nyong'o, Winston Duke and Evan Alex in US. (copyright 2019)

The goal of most horror films is to scare the ever-loving shite out of you, but effective horror needs to be seen, not watched through the hands covering your eyes. That’s an ideal that Jordan Peele understands very well. His horror sensibilities lean towards the accessible. Sure, his Oscar-winning script for GET OUT had edge-of-your-seat frights, but it was also a ton of fun, not to mention exceedingly funny. The same is true with his latest film US. The 1 hour and 56-minute frightener has plenty of jump-out-of-your-seat scares, but first and foremost, it’s a rollicking good time. 

It’s one of those films where you find yourself laughing a lot, not necessarily because it’s uproarious, but because it’s done so well. You giggle with pleasure watching the puppet master pull your strings here, delighting in how deftly Peele is manipulating his audience. Even when the story gets a bit wonky at the end, the goodwill that the filmmaker’s built up throughout carries the story over some third act rough spots. Ultimately, the film is a very good one, if not quite great, but few will walk out of it feeling they didn’t get their money’s worth.  

What makes it so appealing? For starters, Peele creates a family of four protagonists who are very likable and sympathetic. Secondly, the horrors they face are utterly relatable – they’re attacked in their home by a group of strangers, and who hasn’t feared something like that in their lives? Most importantly, Peele avoids turning this family into fools, as so many horror movies do, just to fulfill the bloodletting needs of the genre. Instead, the filmmaker ensures that his characters act smarter than we’d expect, braver too, and most of the surprises in the film come from the family’s heroic acts exceeding our expectations.   

Peele is also expert at casting, with all four actors he’s cast in the leads excelling in their dual roles. (More on that in a bit.) Lupita Nyong’o plays mom Adelaide Wilson, a caretaker out to make the summer vacation into a worthy 'family time' experience. That’s not as easy as it sounds because her towering husband Gabe (Winston Duke) is a bit of a self-absorbed man-child. Meanwhile, moody teen daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) seems nonplussed by every encounter, barely able to look up from her cellphone. Younger son Jason (Evan Alex) is remote too, preferring to flick an old lighter incessantly and wear a werewolf mask to hide in his own private world.

Peele finds humor in their family tension, slyly priming us for the greater consternation to come. That arrives when four visitors show up, standing in the driveway one night, staring at the house, as stiff as statues. Gabe tries to scare them away with tough talk and a baseball bat, but soon the invaders infiltrate the house and start their unexplained torment. These intruders turn out to be twisted doppelgangers of the Wilson clan (also played by the core four.) Are these intruders some kind of clones? Aliens in disguise? Peele’s not telling just yet. Instead, he takes a page from the twisted mind of filmmaker Michael Haneke and has the intruders start to play some funny games with the Wilson clan.  

While the four strangers start to toy with their counterparts, the differences in their characters compared to the originals they're copied from makes for some cheeky satire. Eyeglass-wearing Gabe’s doppelganger has trouble seeing, Jason’s obsession with his lighter manifests itself into matches being flicked by his double, and the other Zora pays too close of attention to everyone, staring continuously at everyone as if they’re her phone screen. Most terrifying is Adelaide’s mirror image. She’s the only one who can speak, and her clipped, almost swallowed, delivery is a nightmare unto its own, satirizing the elegant diction of Nyong’o. 

Then Peele starts to really dial up the fun. Rather than merely have the film stand as another riff on the home invasion trope, he turns it into much, much more. The Wilson’s fight back, as they become spontaneous action heroes, scrambling for their lives and doing a damn good job taking on the intruders. The cat & mouse game between the eight people make for some nail-biting action sequences, ultimately leading to an outrageous and violent set-piece in a hoity-toity modern home. That posh home is owned by their friends, played by Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker, Cali Sheldon, and Noelle Sheldon, and the scenes in that house are where the film reaches its thrilling zenith. 

But then, right as the film enters its final act, Peele is compelled to explain all that’s been going on before it. He writes an exposition scene that is a bit too long and not wholly terrifying, and it ends up taking some of the edges off of the terror. It also opens a Pandora’s box of questions that don’t enhance the story’s logic. For my money, evil left unexplained tends to be much more disturbing.

US should make a killing at the box office - watch out, Captain Marvel - and its accomplishments are many. It’s better than 90% of the horror product that opens in theaters, Nyong’o's performance should merit Oscar consideration, as should composer Michael Abel’s exciting score. Most acclaim must go to Peele though as he once again has created a horror film that manages to be scary, hilarious, as well as socially relevant. The dreaded “other” as the perceived enemy here is a clear commentary on the prejudices at play in our polarizing political age. Peele’s talents as a scaremeister bode well for his reboot of THE TWILIGHT ZONE on CBS due next month and indeed, this film has a definite Rod Serling sensibility to it. We are all very fortunate to have Peele scaring up thrills and chills that do such an exquisite job of rattling us.  

Friday, March 8, 2019

BRIE LARSON, SAMUEL L. JACKSON & A SCENE-STEALING CAT ELEVATE "CAPTAIN MARVEL"



Original caricature by Jeff York of Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson and Goose the Cat in CAPTAIN MARVEL
(copyright 2019)
Expectations are sky-high for Marvel Studio’s latest superhero film CAPTAIN MARVEL. It’s not only the movie studio’s first big-screen adventure with a female lead in Academy-Award winning Brie Larson from Room, but it also stands as a critical bridge between the two-part epic of AVENGERS: INFINITY WARS and AVENGERS: ENDGAME. (She’s the one that Nick Fury paged as he disintegrated in that first part’s post-credit sequence.) Marvel can rest easy that they’ve got another fun movie on their hands, and yet its greatest strengths are those moments more human than heroic. And, in some instances, more feline, as a supporting orange tabby almost steals the entire picture.

Married filmmakers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck do a decent job of delivering the requisite action here, but their strengths lie in creating quirky characters and the loosy-goosy interactions between them. In movies like HALF NELSON (2006) and IT'S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY (2010), they showcased eccentric characters that drove simple stories. Much of the same comes through in Captain Marvel when heroine Carol Danvers isn’t acting like an avenger. She is far more interesting when she’s down-to-earth, literally and figuratively.

In fact, Boden and Fleck seem far less interested in a lot of the typical beats of a Marvel origins stories as evidenced by their minimalizing of the time they spend on such tropes. Their script, written with Geneva Roberston-Dworet, truncates Danvers' youthful flashbacks that would normally take up a ton of screen time in other Marvel movies. The script moves things along so swiftly that the back-story of Danvers’ strained relationship with her father gets covered in a breathless, blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment. 

Boden and Fleck don’t seem all that interested in the excessive backstory about the alien war at the core either. They don't set up the Kree or the Skrulls particularly well, and they don’t even bother to give most of the Kree brotherhood any genuine personalities. (The formidable Djimon Hounsou is one of them, but he’s given virtually no character to play). The directors seem almost apathetic about the lore of this galactic conflict, preferring to get past the 'makeup fest' so they can turn their attention to the more silly stuff. Indeed, Danvers’ fish-out-of-water story when she lands back on earth is quite funny and it's where the movie hits its stride.

Because Danvers’ origin story takes place in the ’90s, it gives Boden and Fleck all the more opportunity to make hay out of that decade's pastiche, in addition to making fun of a younger Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) too. The movie becomes an out-and-out comedy at times, especially with Fury fretting over a wayward cat. (More on that later.) The humor allows Larson to play something she's more comfortable with, specifically bantering wryly with a game Jackson. Watching her pose dramatically in her heroic postures doesn't quite suit her any more than the clearly padded costume she's wearing to make her more buff. Her strengths, despite all the chopping and kicking she's asked to do here, lie in her droll wit and dismissive side-eyes.

The filmmakers have a field day taking the piss out of antiquated 90’s relics like Blockbuster stores, the painfully slow downloads on early computers, and a lot of the music from that period that hasn’t aged particularly well. (Sorry, Gwen Stefani.) The most fun comes from seeing Fury 25 years younger, with a full head of hair and both eyes. Jackson doesn’t get that many chances to be comedic onscreen, and he relishes playing such a version of his character. 

Soon, Danvers and Fury are running all over hill and dale, trying to figure out what the Skrulls are up to, as well as figure out her mysterious history since her memories were lost after she crashed on the Kree planet. That past of hers, as well as the true motivations of the Skulls, hold the key to her powers that include the ability to harness energy, be immune to bullets, and fly. As the two schlep all over Los Angeles, Danvers gets to apply her skills on earth, often in front of bewildered bystanders. The scene on the LA subway where she throws down with a Skrull disguised as an old lady is one of the film’s comedic highlights.

Still, the funniest moments involve that cat previously mentioned. The orange tabby is named Goose, and it keeps popping up while Danvers and Fury are sleuthing. The cat even manages to stow away aboard Danvers’ jet earning the film’s biggest laugh when the kitty is shown reacting badly to zero gravity. Adding to the burlesque is the fact that the Skrulls fear the little creature, thinking that it’s a tentacled alien out to eat them.

It seems every critter in this movie is dealing with identities in question, from Danvers not knowing her backstory to the Skrulls' abilities to morph into others. The Kree are not all they seem to be, of course, including hunky mentor Yon-Rogg (a game Jude Law), let alone the mysterious Skrull leader Talos (an insinuating Ben Mendelsohn). It's even hard to get a bead on just who Dr. Lawson (Annette Bening) is in the overly complicated plotting. She looks dynamite in her green contacts and fitted leather jacket, but is she friend or foe?

One of the most surprising things about this film is that there is no extraneous love interest given to Danvers, something almost miraculous for material like this. Instead, the relationship that is given time is her friendship with fellow pilot Maria (Lashana Lynch). Single mom Maria fought hard to make it in the macho world of the military alongside her bestie, and daughter Monica (Akira Akbar) isn't missing a father figure with these two are around. To that end, the film is a bit too on-the-nose with the “girl power” machinations, but at least neither female adult in the story requires a man for fulfillment. How refreshing is that in the he-man, superhero universe?

Less fresh is the somewhat typical final battle in space as Danvers takes full ownership of her powers, a third act that echoes the finale of 2017's WONDER WOMAN far too closely. Fully embracing her Captain Marvel persona, Danvers throws all the alien baddies into a lot of scenery but is careful not to kill anyone. It's all a little too safe and too dull, and the excessive CGI doesn’t help matters. It would be nice if Larson were genuinely participating in most of the action, but she seems to have been replaced by a digital version of the character most of the time. As expensive as all of the effects are here, the greatest ones remain the ability to shave 25 years off of Jackson, as well as fellow agent Coulson (Clark Gregg, reprising his earlier Avengers film role.)

For all of Marvel’s success in 20 some movies now, their third acts too often play anti-climactically, and so does this one. The superiority of the MCU over the films from DC lies in their ability to create more interesting characters and let humor inform much of their personalities. Such attributes get lost when these endings trot out the inevitable, wham-bam smackdowns as they almost always do. Wouldn’t it be great to have a climax in one of these films where fighting didn’t solve the galaxy’s problems, and smarts did instead? The purpose of Danvers' powers in this film is to "end all wars," but it seems like all that electricity and derring-do is really there to keep her in the role of one helluva war machine. So much for marvelous.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

THE LAST WORD ON OSCAR BY YOURS TRULY


I’ve resisted writing anything about the Oscar ceremony this past week as I read so many assessments from colleagues, critics, and other journalists that captured most of what needed to be said about them. Still, a number of my readers and friends have asked for my two cents, and now with the perspective of almost a week under my belt, I have a few things to add to the mix. 

My thoughts veer more towards the constructive for the awards' future, not strictly a review of the show or an assessment of any particular winner. Fortunately, the Academy put on a good show this year, so that saves a lot of time kvetching. Still, it might be worthwhile to take a few moments to showcase why this show was particularly memorable in so many ways this time. 

Perhaps with all the misfires leading up to the ceremony by Academy leadership and ABC executives, audiences were prepared for a disaster of a show, but thankfully, that never occurred. This go-round the Academy ended up showing sound judgment in what went on-air, making for a crisp and clever entertainment. Here are my final thoughts on the show:
  • The ceremony didn't need a host and if anything proved that past shows spent way too much time catering to the particular schtick of a singular comedian. Let's keep it host-free for a few years, shall we?
  • Giving presenters the opportunity to do more individual bits that highlighted their strengths paid off handsomely. James McAvoy did well with levels of sound an actor can project while presenting awards in that category, and Melissa McCarthy showcased her abilities with physical comedy to give the award for Best Costumes. 
  • The songs were showcased properly without being over-produced.
  • The single clip package at the beginning highlighting the year in movies rather than the history of film was so much better than all those egregious clip packages of the past.
  •  The couplings often made for bizarre and adorable funny duos like Jason Momoa and Helen Mirren. When their interplay makes you wish someone would write a comedy for them to star in, the writers of the show are doing something right. 
  • Newcomers like Elsie Fisher, Stephan James, John Mulaney, Kiki Layne, Bryan Tyree Henry, and Amandla Stenberg were stars that shone brightly in 2018, and they provided fresh sparkle to the show by being included. 
  • Diversity was also well represented across the board in the presenters, the films, and the winners. Bravo!
  • Whoever came up with the one-take, intimate way for Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper to perform "Shallow" from A STAR IS BORN deserves their own award. The staging and camera work was astounding, giving the actors and the song gravitas and a searing romanticism that made that number one of Oscar's best ever.
  • It was great that the winners were allowed to speak without that exit music creeping in too quickly. Bravo for the patience to let those called have their time in the sun. And by and large, most of the speeches were terrific, save those awful and disorganized makeup winner for VICE.
  • Thankfully, the producers knew to let big winners like Spike Lee and Olivia Colman go on and on in their acceptance speeches. They deserved to be heard, and what they had to say was smart, moving, and witty.
Where the Academy erred this year is where they err every year - in some of their ridiculous balloting practices, especially since they've gone to a vote that allows for up to 10 Best Picture nominees. It is here where changes are needed to restore luster to the gold. 

The entire Academy should only vote for Best Picture
Editing awards being voted on by anyone other than editors doesn’t feel particularly informed, especially when too many voters admit to not watching what they’re voting on, and even worse, that they don't know how to judge areas that aren't their expertise. Case in point? The Oscar for editing this year went to BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY with utterly atrocious cutting as highlighted here -  https://bit.ly/2En1v5I

For the final ballot, experts should be the only ones voting, just as they nominate. Actors pick actors, costume designers choose costume designers. That way, both the nomination and winners will be more informed and correct.

Best Picture should go back to five films
The more do not make for the merrier. While the length of the list was increased to try and get more commercial hits squeezed in, they haven't all that much. Having an inconsistent and floating number of possible films lessens the credibility of the list too. The category should go back to five, a very exclusive shortlist.

If you’re going to stay open to 10, however, then nominate 10
Such foolish inconsistency makes a mockery of it all.

Get rid of that weighted ballot for Best Picture
It's a silly numbers game with too many rules, too much of a complicated point system, and too many rounds of balloting to anoint a winner. Enough with all that excessive number crunching. Every voter should get one vote. They choose the one film they'd pick for Best Picture, and the movie with the most votes then should win. Simple. Easy. Period. End of sentence.

Get out in front of the other awards shows
 The world has changed, and the Academy is not doing itself any favors by coming so late after all the critics' awards and other shows. The later the Oscars, the more they appear as an also-ran. Let's get them done by early February from now on, shall we?

There. That’s all I have left to say about the Oscars this year. Now onto the films of 2019.