Us Review

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Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, Get Out, took the world by storm. It was lauded by audiences and critics alike for its social relevance, unique ideas, and thrilling twists. It even garnered Peele a Best Director nomination and Best Original Screenplay win at the Academy Awards. Naturally, his sophomore effort has caused collective anticipation from enthusiastic audiences. Us focuses on a family that is attacked by seemingly alternate malevolent versions of themselves. Lupita Nyong’o plays the lead role of Adelaide Wilson, a mother of two children, who is disturbed by the return of the doppelgangers since she once encountered her evil counterpart as a young girl. As the fight for survival between the original family and the counterparts continues, Adelaide must face the dark secrets of her past and uncover the truth behind why the doppelgangers are attacking.

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Lupita Nyong’o steals the show as Adelaide Wilson 

Us is an extremely well-directed, exciting, and suspenseful film that unfortunately has a confusing resolution that doesn’t give the satisfying final “oomph” moment that the rest of the film was building up to. I won’t be going into spoilers in this review until the very end. First, the good things in the movie start with the absolutely breathtaking performance of Lupita Nyong’o. She conveys vulnerability and then strength as Adelaide Wilson, and manages to elicit a steady dose of fear as her malicious doppelganger. There is already early Oscar buzz for her, and after seeing her incredibly compelling performance I am not one to argue. Winston Duke plays the part of the comical and blundering father of the family, with Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex as the two children. The interplay between the family, especially thanks to Winston Duke’s comedy, helps to build empathy for them and allows us to root for them when things go sideways. After an initial slow build that creates intrigue, the second act of the film is easily its best, as the family is confronted by their doppelgangers and have to frantically grapple with their counterparts. This is where the scares and horror stylings are their best. Peele litters this film with references to Jaws, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and The Shining. The directing is expertly executed, as Peele can go from expansive shots of devastation to small and claustrophobic moments dripping with suspense. There is a particularly important reason for cutaways in the film that leads up to the big revelation at the end. The music is also well done, with the sharp staccato notes of the violin as the film’s main theme creating terror with its shrill sound. There are quite a few twists and turns that are sure to surprise audiences. Some of them are welcome, however as I said, some of the twists at the end are a little head scratching. Specifically, the reason behind how the doppelgangers came to be and are doing what they are doing is disappointing and unfulfilled. It seems there was a lot more that could have been filled in and the end product creates a major suspension of disbelief that hampers the quality of the film slightly.Image result for Us jordan peele family

The build-up to the end is incredible, everything from the comedy to the drama, suspense, and horror, however, considering that the film is predicated upon the fact that the secrets of these doppelgangers would be a groundbreaking revelation that puts the story into perspective, there just isn’t enough to leave the kind of impact that I expected. The ending of the film isn’t bad or terrible per se, but the meaning of the narrative could have certainly felt much more powerful had the end not been so filled with needless exposition and inconsistencies that were created despite all of the exposition. For example, there is a scene between Lupita Nyong’o’s character and her doppelganger where the doppelganger is explaining certain things that she shouldn’t have been able to explain given the fact that she was a doppelganger. It seems that in order to sell the twist in the film, certain glaring inconsistencies were left open, especially when exposition is being given by characters that can’t be giving that exposition since they were never in the position that they are describing, as confusing as that all sounds. In the end, I enjoyed the film, but Peele is asking me to ignore too many inconstancies and plot points that don’t make sense in order to feel the weight of the narrative. Us delivers a powerful message that is unfortunately kept short of tying up a brilliant first two acts due to several irregularities with the film’s final act. It ends up being too contrived and focused on selling a big twist rather than finding a natural resolution to such an interesting premise.

Warning: The rest of this review contains spoilers so read no further unless you’ve already seen the movie or just don’t care.

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So, going into spoilers, it’s revealed in the end that Adelaide’s encounter with her doppelganger back when she was a child turned out quite differently than we were led to believe. It turns out that on that night, the doppelganger attacked her original, crushing her throat and dragging her back to the underground facility where the doppelganger trapped the original. Thus, the doppelganger Adelaide, known as Red, actually switched lives with Adelaide and lived her life on the surface world while the real original Adelaide was forced to live her entire life underground with the rest of the Tethered. This suggests that nurture reigns over nature, as with enough connection to society and family, the Tethered Red was able to develop into a fully functioning person with a family whereas the imprisoned Adelaide became a menacing psychopath. While this is certainly a good reveal, it doesn’t make sense why the real Adelaide who we thought was the doppelganger the whole time should be explaining what the Tethered are to Red, since Red already knew what was down there as she had grown up in it until she switched lives with the real Adelaide. It seems that the closer someone is to their tethered counterpart, the more likely they are of encountering each other, or at least that’s the case with Adelaide. So why didn’t any of the other Tethered wander up to the surface? How was Red able to go up there in the first place? And if Red was able to go up and escape, then why wasn’t Adelaide also able to go up the escalator and find the surface. Another confusing element is how the Tethered seem to mirror the movements of their surface world counterparts, so how come Red wasn’t controlled by Adelaide’s movements. The implication perhaps is that when Red went to the surface world the power struggle shifted in her favor, but that still doesn’t explain how Adelaide was able to just escape after all that time. Once the switch is revealed, it strengthens the beginning of the film since it makes sense that Red would be scared of going back to the place where she left Adelaide, but then why would she go at all and risk the chance of her counterpart resurfacing for revenge? There is also no explanation for how Adelaide was able to organize and communicate with millions of grunting vapid Tethered and convince them to organize the “Hands Across America” movement. The facility seemed to be one of many, so how was she able to get across to the millions of Tethered how to escape their facilities and link up? It’s also not explained why the Tethered exist in the first place. It’s simply stated that “The government started cloning people to try and control us but couldn’t replicate the spirit so they just let millions of zombies wander underneath the surface of America”. What exactly were they trying to control in people? Why couldn’t they replicate the spirit through education and nurture? There are so many leaps in logic and suspensions of disbelief that it is simply too much, in my opinion, to truly drive the film home. The answer to all of these questions seems to be, unfortunately, “because, it just works so that we can have a movie”, which doesn’t quite cut it for me. What I believe Peele is trying to do is force us to reflect on the nature of our situation, and the status and comforts that we have as a result of other people suffering and doing the difficult work that keeps our luxuries belonging to us. The Tethered making a statement is reminiscent of protests from unions and blue-collar workers. The underground facilities and scissors are potential mirroring’s to sweatshop labor and the mistreatment of sweatshop workers, especially children. It reminds the viewer that the clothes on their backs and the ground that they walk on have been shaped by people, some of whom do not have the prosperous lives that we have. Unfortunately, in regards to the film, there is too much left in the air, and too little explained for the dramatic effect of the ending to be truly resonant

The Punisher Season 2 Review

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People would probably consider a review of this kind of content to be a far cry from the content which I last reviewed, however, I like to consider myself omnivorous in taste. Also, there is more than meets the eye where it comes to this Marvel Netflix series. Frank Castle aka The Punisher, a Marvel Comics vigilante, first appeared in this Marvel Netflix Universe in the second season of Daredevil as a vengeful man looking to eradicate anyone involved in the death of his wife and children. After his success in Daredevil in large part due to the excellent writing of The Punisher episodes and the fantastic performance by Jon Bernthal, the character received his own Netflix show. Particularly known as a character that discriminately kills bad people with a wide arsenal of guns, the first season of The Punisher was surprisingly quiet and gradual in its storytelling. Rather than come off the bat with blazing action and over the top gore, the show took its time, building the story as a slow political thriller rather than an intense action series. More than that, the show was also unafraid to shy away from controversial content. It focused heavily on the treatment of veterans in our modern American society and the importance of overcoming traumatic experiences through support, and how neglecting to give that support means turning our backs on people. It also was able to have a real, rational discussion on gun laws and the different sides of the argument. In the end, it was still able to stay true to the character’s violent roots and deliver the rampage and fiery destruction that everyone wanted to see. To date, it is my favorite season of a Marvel show.

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Jon Bernthal as Frank Castle/The Punisher

The Punisher Season 2 continues the first season’s formula of having a reflective and steady build to the story. It starts with Frank lying low after brutally taking down his former friend Billy Russo, who betrayed Frank and was involved in the death of Frank’s family. An interesting start to the season occurs when Frank meets a woman named Beth, played by Alexa Davalos, and the two develop a relationship. It’s the first time that Frank can be seen as moving on from his vengeful motives, but unfortunately, trouble eventually rears its ugly head. This time, it comes in the form of a girl named Amy, who is on the run from a group of hired goons led by a chilling preacher-looking character named John Pilgrim. Meanwhile, Homeland Security agent, Dinah Madani, is still recovering from her manipulation at the hands of Billy Russo, when he escapes from a hospital. The season itself feels very bisected in that the first half involves Frank and Amy running from Pilgrim and the second half deals with Billy Russo more. However, both arcs in the season somehow don’t seem to intrude upon each other, and while they aren’t necessarily perfect at being complementary, they nevertheless seem to work well together. It’s inexplicable, but the narrative doesn’t feel like it’s all over the place even though it technically is all over the place. Part of it may have to do with the excellent acting and charisma by the leads. Amy, played by Giorgia Wigham, develops a strong rapport with Frank as the series progresses. I was initially skeptical about how well they would play off of each other, especially considering the character of Micro, played by Ebon Moss-Bachrach, had as good chemistry with Frank in the first season as you could find in any TV show. Another character that gets a bigger role in the second season is Curtis, one of Frank’s war buddies formerly in the Navy and now operating a PTSD counseling group. Though featured in the previous season, Curtis tags along with Frank this time around and through their actions and interactions, the dichotomy between the two characters is accentuated. Frank’s destructive, violent, uncompromising, kill-happy personality contrasts with Curtis’s generosity, willingness to see good in others, and belief in healing those that society has rejected. It’s clear that Curtis just wants to make it out alive and to help Frank move on from his vigilante ways.

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Giorgia Wigham plays the character of Amy Bendix
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Jason Moore as Curtis Hoyle

 

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Ben Barnes as Billy Russo/Jigsaw

Ben Barnes returns as Billy Russo, now with a somewhat scarred face after being brutally beaten by Frank. The character of Billy Russo aka Jigsaw is known in the comics for having a severely scarred and disfigured face. Fans of the comics might be disappointed, since the show decides to have a different take on the character, showing Russo as more psychologically scarred than he is physically. Again, despite all accounts suggesting that the decisions made by the showrunners shouldn’t work, it comes off as convincing and in line with the character that they had established in the first season. Josh Stewart delivers a cold and eerie performance as John Pilgrim. Pilgrim as a character walks a line that is closer to Frank’s, however, he is a conduit for more powerful forces that run abound in the background. Both the villains, Russo and Pilgrim, seem to be dark reflections of Frank Castle himself, and it causes Frank to reflect on his ways. However, this Frank, unlike in Season 1 and Daredevil, is done trying to find his identity. He is sure of who and what he is. Of course, what he is, is an unhinged and brutal killer who doesn’t give a second thought to taking a life yet he and everyone else around him knows that. The Punisher isn’t watered down or shown to secretly have a soft heart. It is clear that Frank is willing to cross the lines that others wouldn’t be willing to cross, and what separates him from his enemies in the end, is his compassion for innocent people and his ability to care about other people and put his life on the line for them. His biggest fight has been against a system that he believes is wrong, allowing powerful people to abuse their positions and create chaos that ripples across the city and negatively affects the innocent bystanders.

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Since this will most likely be the end of The Punisher Netflix series, I’d like to mention how unique the show was. It took a character that is a rampaging vigilante and added layers to his story and identity. It immersed viewers into a complex world where the lines are blurred and good people trying to do the right thing don’t always get the best results. It also continues to highlight the plight of veterans living in America, and the idea of being forgotten. The Punisher is bold in its stance. It acknowledges that there are parts of our infrastructure and society that are harsh and uncompromising; not simply in terms of crime and poverty, but more because of the people in power and the games that they play, power struggles for selfish gains with the lives of the powerless caught in the crossfire.

 

Classic Film Review: Jaws (1975)

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The sound of waves crash against a small fishing boat floating on the waters of the ocean. The character of Quint, played by Robert Shaw, bites down on a biscuit. He is seated next to a giant fishing reel. The splashes of the ocean and the creaking of the boat are interrupted by slow, low notes from a string section of an orchestra. The reel begins slowly ticking, coming into focus and catching the attention of Quint. Martin Brody, played by Roy Scheider, sits at the edge of the boat, trying to tie a bowline knot. Quint slowly grabs the rod as the camera focuses on the large reel. Suddenly, Brody shouts “Hey, I’ve got it!” as he finishes the knot. This break in tension segues into a frenzy as the line begins rapidly pulling forward, propelling the film towards its next thrilling sequence. This brilliant moment is one of many that exemplify the brilliance of Steven Spielberg’s 1975 classic, Jaws. I’d never seen the movie until now, but a classic is a classic for a reason. Jaws is a tightly-wound masterpiece. Its narrative and characters feel as if they leaped off the page of an intricately-woven literary novel. If that isn’t enough, its cinematography, music, acting, and production cement the film as one of the greatest examples of cinema in history. It is also, in my opinion, one of the best-directed films ever made. Though this is only Spielberg’s second directing gig, he manages to rival Hitchcock in his ability to build suspense and keep the audience’s attention on what he wants. Jaws is also commonly accepted as one of the most influential films in history. The anticipation, release, and success of the film made it essentially the first major summer blockbuster. The sheer amount of accomplishments that this film was able to garner is astounding when considering its troubled production, filming drama, and costly budget for the time. Spielberg insisted on filming at sea, and the entire second half of the film was shot completely on a small boat. The amalgamation of production and budget restrictions that hindered Spielberg’s vision for the film ended up benefitting the film, as Spielberg was forced to think out of the box and employ new and revolutionary tactics in filmmaking and direction.

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Jaws, as most people know, is the story of a giant killer shark that terrorizes a small beach town and is pursued by the chief of police, Martin Brody. Brody is an honest man with a wife and two kids. The brilliance of Roy Scheider’s performance as Brody is that despite having the outward appearance of a stern and hardened man, his demeanor is actually soft and reflective. It really feels like he’s just an ordinary guy trying to do his best to protect the people of the town. When casting for the film, Spielberg didn’t want to have big name actors appear in the movie since he wanted the events of the film to “believe this was happening to people like you and me”. In fact, Charlton Heston was originally interested in the role but Spielberg felt his grand image would detract from the ordinary every-day setting and the terror and connection that the audience would feel for Brody. As much of a thriller as Jaws is, the first half of the film is actually dedicated to building the character of Brody, and in analyzing the fear and paranoia of the townspeople in response to the shark attacks. A difference in ideologies takes place early in the film between Brody and Mayor Larry Vaughn, one of the many colorful characters in the movie. The mayor has his eyes set on continuing the beach tourism that drives the town’s economy while Brody is more concerned with the safety of its citizens. Brody’s anxiety is depicted through close up shots of Roy Scheider’s concerned expressions. In a particularly memorable scene, Brody sits on the beach, and as other people cross the screen, the camera cuts in closer to Brody’s face. Even during the shark attack sequences, the camera focuses on the movements and reactions of the people as a brilliant depiction of fear and panic. It’s as if the conflict doesn’t come from the shark itself, but rather the people’s fear of it, and how it causes them to act.

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But to cite the fear of the shark as the main conflict in the film would do an extreme disservice to the shark itself. Even without actually being on screen, the shark’s presence is always felt. Originally, Spielberg had designed several mechanical sharks, but they all constantly malfunctioned. To film around this issue, Spielberg showed only portions of the shark at a time. In some scenes, its tail or fin could be seen, and in others, it would be shown as a prop shark head. Aside from the practical effects, the shark’s terror came from its unseen presence more so than what was actually seen. Spielberg would have a large barrel, or a log slowly move towards the characters to represent the shark’s movement. The greatest fear comes from the imagination of the audience, and so by hiding the shark, it’s appearance could be hyped by the audience as more terrifying than what could be shown in a practical prop. Of course, none of the terror would be possible without John William’s excellent score. The simplicity of two alternating notes in a minor 2nd interval proves to be so impactful in its ability to indicate the presence of lurking dread. The increasing speed and volume of the notes as they crescendo into a symphony of cacophonous sound only further builds the suspense. Aside from the ominous main theme, Williams’s score is quite upbeat, with a sense of adventure created by animated and energetic violins.

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As the film progresses, more and more interesting characters get featured, such as oceanographer Matt Hooper, played by Richard Dreyfuss. Hooper adds some levity to the film with his slightly more buoyant personality. He provides just the right amount of quirk and humor to not distract from the film’s serious tone. Robert Shaw’s Quint, the shark hunter, is another character that is rich with personality. His pursuit of the shark comes off as very Melvillian, often harkening to the literary obsessiveness of Captain Ahab in Moby Dick.  The second half of the film relies on the strength of the character interactions between Brody, Hooper, and Quint. Jaws can actually be considered two movies with two separate environments. The first hour introduces the shark and focuses on the town, whereas the second hour is a shark hunt on a fishing boat that takes place entirely out in the ocean. This is where the acting really shines. The scientifically inclined Hooper comes into conflict with the hardened Quint while Brody acts as a straight man to both. Eventually, they feel and function like a unit and bond as they try and hunt down the shark. Scenes between the three involving Quint and Hooper comparing injuries, followed by the three characters singing chanteys are some examples of the excellent character moments in the film. The action and adventure also heighten in the second half as more of the shark is seen and as the fishing boat becomes more and more damaged after each run-in with the creature (even some live footage of actual sharks was integrated into the filming). These scenes, with the combination of brilliant acting, character development, music, and directing are some of the greatest examples of movie magic that you will be hard-pressed to find replicated in most movies today.

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When I finished watching Jaws, I had this great feeling, as if I had just come back from a big adventure. There are not one, but several scenes that can be considered some of the best scenes in film history. The camera and the music felt like characters just as much as the actors did. The selective views of the shark along with the initial point-of-view shots from the shark’s perspective cement it as one of the most iconic creatures in horror. There’s no point in reiterating how impactful this film was to Hollywood, but what I can say is that it more than earns its status. It’s a carefully constructed and thoughtful yet wild adventure that builds to an epic encounter between a terrifying force of nature. It’s an inward look at human psychology and response to fear. It balances its narrative in just the right ways and rewards and punishes characters in a way that consistently aligns with their actions and choices. At the end of the day, Jaws is one of the greatest movies ever made.