Us (2019)

“I’m not very good at talking.”

He’s done it again, ladies and gentlemen (and assorted individuals of a nonbinary nature). Jordan Peele has submitted his CV for any and all who might have been foolish enough to have doubted his legacy as the heir apparent to Rod Serling (or Hitchcock, or Shyamalan if you live in a particularly uncharitable part of the internet). The second film helmed by the director who inexplicably turned Blumhouse Productions into a semi-prestige film production house because they were the only ones willing to take a chance on Get Out is more ambitious than its predecessor, meaning that sometimes it swings a bit wider but ultimately has the same meticulous attention to detail, from literal Chekovian guns to a multitude of characters being literally and metaphorically reflected in surfaces both pristine and cracked to even something so small as apparently intentionally offbeat snapping.

Us opens with a birthday outing for young Adelaide (Madison Curry) at the Santa Cruz boardwalk in 1986, where her loving but inattentive and immature father and her worried mother take her around the carnival games while arguing, obviously not for the first time. When Pops (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is distracted by a game of Whack-a-Mole, Adelaide wanders off and finds herself lost and terrified in a hall of mirrors, where her reflection stares back at her from every angle . . . except one. Later, the traumatized and speechless girl sits outside of a child psychologist’s office, who explains to the parents that Adelaide appears to be suffering from PTSD, prompting mom (Anna Diop) to declare that she just wants her daughter back, back to the way she was before. In the present, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is married to the nerdy but devoted Gabe (Winston Duke) and has two children, teenaged Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), who is considering quitting the track team, and elementary aged Jason (Evan Alex), an apparent budding horror fan who wears a Wolfman mask as much as possible. They go to Adelaide’s childhood home for summer vacation, where Gabe proudly shows off the boat (the Craw-Daddy) that he has recently purchased, and he convinces his wife to take the kids down to beach for the day to meet up with their friends Josh (Tim Heidecker) and Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) and their two teen twin daughters Becca and Lindsey (Cali and Noelle Sheldon). At the same beachfront where something unknown but traumatic happened to her as a child, odd coincidences begin to occur: a red frisbee lands on a towel covered in blue polka dots, perfectly covering one of them; a man that she recognizes from her childhood as a boardwalk vagrant is seen being loaded into a waiting ambulance, and Jason wanders off just as she herself had before he appears, none the worse for wear. Back home, Adelaide tells Gabe about the night that changed her life, moments before Jason appears in the room to tell his parents that there’s a family in their driveway. And then the real fear begins.

Us is a movie that it’s almost impossible to discuss without getting into spoilers (and not just about the ending twist, which is one of those perfect reversals in that about 5% of people are complaining about how “obvious” it was, 10% of people are complaining about how it was “spoiled” by promotional materials, 60% of people are pleasantly surprised by how it was cleverly seeded within the text and fits so perfectly that one realizes the story couldn’t actually exist in any other form, and 25% of people are vocally overemoting about it to any audience that will give them the satisfaction), but we’ll try. From the earliest moments, including the scene of little Adelaide watching an advertisement for Hands Across America (which apparently some people thought was made up for the film, which is sad because that means those people have never known the joy of watching classic Simpsons, apparently) on a television that is framed by VHS copies of the films The Goonies, The Right Stuff, and C.H.U.D. (the last of which prompted one of my friends to text me that the scene made him feel like he was at my house for a second, which warmed the cockles of my cold dead heart) before the screen goes blank to reveal the reflection of young Adelaide, soaking it all in. Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” music video, the repeated number 1111 (as a time, a Bible verse, and even evocatively in the logo for Black Flag, appearing on several characters’ clothing), Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, and the meaning of the line “We are Americans”: as with Get Out, no detail is too small to warrant inspection, even if this time around Peele is playing with audience expectation and subverting a more obvious and consistent interpretation of his symbolism for a more thoughtful and disquieting notion of significance. It doesn’t give too much of the film’s message away to say that it is about class and the way that it creates dark mirrors for ourselves everywhere, the way that getting out of the darkness of poverty is often impossible, and that those who manage to somehow embody the mythological idea of social mobility must do so at the expense of others, ultimately becoming complicit in the suffering of those who might otherwise have been your peers. Of course, with a film like this one, there are going to be other interpretations, but it’s all there.

Consider: Adelaide’s father, playing Whack-a-Mole, knocking down facsimiles of rodents as they try to rise up out of the darkness underground. Consider: that Gabe constantly finds himself trying to one-up Josh, only to find that Josh himself is imitating his own decisions, in an orobouros of attempts to keep up with the Joneses. Consider: that “I Got 5 On It” is about how one person covets an entire object despite said object being a dime bag that both parties going halves should share between the two of them (“I got some bucks on it, but it ain’t enough on it”). Consider: the power of art as the impetus to empower the recognition of interclass economic struggle and the ability to transcend (or at least ascend within) it. Consider: the repeated refrain of the “Itsy Bitsy Spider” that eternally attempts to climb and is forever pushed back down. Consider: when arriving at the beach house, the family eats fast food, except for Adelaide, who eats strawberries; why? Consider: what does a Black Flag t-shirt mean in 1986 when worn by a teenager working long hard hours versus being worn by the child of a comfortably wealthy family in 2019?

The performances here are powerful. It takes a powerful actor to be able to embody two different characters within a single work, and Nyong’o joins the ranks of Tricia Helfer and Tatiana Maslany in her performance as both Adelaide and her doppelgänger, “Red.” Red’s initial monologue that explains herself and her family in the format of a twisted fairy tale is particularly astonishing, as is her final speech. Duke is fantastic as the embarrassing dad as well, and every moment that he is on screen is a delight. As of this writing, I’m pretty sure that Brandon hasn’t gotten a chance to see this one (event though he is editing this review), so I’m choosing my words very carefully, but this movie comes with my highest recommendations, with a few caveats. I’m not a person who lets minor unresolved details derail my enjoyment of a film, but for those who are prone to pick at nits, there are . . . logistical issues that are never specifically addressed and which are ambiguous enough that I have no doubt those who require not only absolute realism but also utter explicitness in their art would consider them “plot holes.” So, you know, don’t take that friend with you (don’t worry, we all have at least one). Just get out and see this one, although from the box office numbers, you probably already have.

P.S.: My favorite joke is the fact that the “find yourself” hall of mirrors, subtly, has gotten a more socially conscious rebrand in 2019 to get rid of the Native American legends and myths motif for a more politically correct wizard.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Black Panther (2018)

Oh man oh man oh man, the magic duo of people’s sexiest man alive Michael B. Jordan (not to be confused with People‘s Sexiest[?] Man Alive[?] Blake Shelton[?]) and Ryan Coogler has done it again. Black Panther is as fantastic as we were all hoping, and I’m super excited that Marvel Studios finally started using the privilege of being this generation’s premiere film franchise (for better or worse) to finally push forward with an explicit intersectional, anti-colonialism, and afro-positive message. I’m here for this, and you should be too.

It’s been a little less than two years since I wrote out my thoughts on Marvel’s race problem, which I drafted up in response to the whitewashing of the character of the Ancient One in the then-upcoming Doctor Strange film. That film was a disappointment on more levels than that (there’s a reason our Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. coverage hasn’t resumed, as every time I think about rewatching Strange I get depressed) Since then, superhero broadcast and cinematic media has gotten better about addressing the ongoing issues that are shaking the foundations of our society, and even our democracy. For instance: Supergirl continuing to knock it out of the park as far as political commentary goes, from Cat Grant’s speech in the season two finale (appropriately entitled “Nevertheless She Persisted”) to the show’s episodic intro for this season (“My name is Kara Zor-El. I’m from Krypton. I’m a refugee on this planet.”). The CW also premiered Black Lightning at the beginning of this year, which I’m also finding both to be both moving and entertaining in addition to drawing more attention to issues that middle America tends to ignore. In the first episode alone, our hero Jefferson Pierce faced disproportionate police violence against communities of color, the preponderance of racial profiling in America, the bias of media when reporting on black citizens in comparison to treatment of white citizens. Our media should and must address these vitally important issues that demand attention and discussion in our culture right now, when the Attorney General is using (barely) coded language to signal to white supremacists that they have tacit approval from and are welcome to be part of law enforcement amidst dozens of other horrors.

I’m speaking out of my lane a bit here, as neither a woman or a person of color, and I’ll be the first person to admit to that. I’m not the final word on this, and I have no authority to speak to these matters. What I do have is a responsibility to do so. As Bell Hooks tells us in Homegrown: “Privilege is not in and of itself bad; what matters is what we do with privilege” (emphasis mine), and as such I want to take a second to talk about Star Trek: Discovery (I know, I know, but hear me out). The Star Trek franchise flirted with queer themes a number of times before this most recent series with episodes like TNG‘s “The Outcast” and DS9‘s “Rejoined,” but those episodes, when they discussed queer identities and presences in society, did so with a reliance on metaphor to distance the characters from the “taint” of homosexuality in the getting-better-but-still-not-great nineties. In Discovery, when we finally see Dr. Culber and Lieutenant Stamets standing at their sink and brushing their teeth together, then stealing a quick kiss, I cried. It’s hardly important, not plot-relevant (at least at the time), and part of me wants to decry that this is barely good enough, and yet… seeing, for the very first time, a reflection of myself in the fictional universe that had meant so much to me elicited an emotional reaction for which I was not prepared. Culber and Stamets—Hugh and Paul—were not victims. They weren’t dying of AIDS or as the result of violence, neither was the butt of a joke or a sassy best friend, they weren’t having to face systemic oppression or deny their birthrights to be together; they simply were.

People of black African descent watching Black Panther will have some of the same feelings I had watching Discovery and other feelings as well. There are better and clearer thinkers out there from whom you should be getting this information, but just in case Swampflix is the only website you read and are under a cultural embargo in every other way, listen up: there’s no one-to-one correlation between the experiences of one marginalized group and another, and the history of colonialism is baked into every single facet of contemporary life. The current progressive discourse is about intersectionality and rising higher by lifting each other and standing shoulder to shoulder, but white people like myself are still the beneficiaries of a social order built virtually entirely to ensure our supremacy and maintain a status quo that keeps the reigns of power in white (or, given the current political situation, orange) hands. If you’re capable of empathy and the most basic building blocks of open-mindedness, you either already know this or are not surprised, but down here on the ground in flyover country, even in a progressive urban enclave like Austin, we’re still trying to get the White Gays™ understand intersectionality even just a little bit. Their claims of having have an “inner black woman” are misogynoir in the first degree, their vocal disgust at people of size is fascism of the body, the sexual fetishization of black men is racism, and the claim that sexual attraction to only one (or all but one) ethnicity is “just a preference” is, at its core, a statement of “I treat people differently based on the color of their skin.” Institutionalized homophobia and racism are both legacies of colonialism that (just in case the people in the back didn’t hear me the first time) is a factor in every level of Western society; we’re struggling to slough off like so much dead skin, but some people will take any small advantage that they have without a moment’s hesitation or a second thought to those whom they may be stepping over. That’s something that the alt-right is happy to take advantage of.

I’m sure that, among readers with a moral philosophy that differs from the values I hold, this will be interpreted as some bleeding heart liberal cuck virtue signaling. Maybe a review of Black Panther isn’t the place for me to air my grievances with the White Gays™ and the fact that even my beloved Supergirl anchors itself pretty solidly in the garden of white feminism; I’ve gone a bit off track, but I just wanted to point out to you, dear reader, that even if you are not a person of color, Black Panther is still a movie you ought to see, and basic empathy means that you should be able to grasp some small part of the immeasurable importance of this film, even if its message of empowerment isn’t aimed at you directly. Despite the issues within my own community, I as an individual recognize the awesome power that representation has, and moreso the power of representation that forsakes the trappings of the meager pittances of visibility that came before. Not every movie about The Gays has to be Philadelphia, not every trans* movie has to be Boys Don’t Cry, and not every movie about the black experience has to be 12 Years a Slave. Representation can and must transcend dramatization and metaphor-making of real world trauma; the past and the framework it created for contemporary existence cannot be denied, but looking to the future is important too. This movie may not be for you, but you will be better for having seen it, and the huge numbers of white Americans who would never pay to see a movie with an (almost) all black cast were it not a Marvel property will also be better for it. This is a film company that has become an indomitable box office powerhouse using that power for good, and that’s worth celebrating.

Away we go! Black Panther picks up shortly after Civil War, showing T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), prince of the technologically advanced isolationist African nation of Wakanda, preparing to take on the mantle of king after the death of his father T’Chaka (John Kani) in that film. He retrieves his ex-girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) from the mission she is on as a “war dog,” a term for Wakandan spies living in other nations, and returns home to be greeted by his mother, Queen Ramonda (actual goddess Angela Bassett), and tech wiz younger sister Shuri (Letitia Wright). His coronation is preceded by ceremonial combat, in which he engages M’Baku (Winston Duke), the leader of a different tribe, for control of the throne. Filling out his coterie are: General Okoye (Danai Gurira, who steals the show), leader of the Dora Milaje, elite female warriors who serve as kingsguard; spiritual leader, tender of the garden of heart-shaped herbs that give the Black Panther his power, and overseer of the transition of power Zuri (Forest Whitaker), who also hides a shameful secret; and W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), T’Challa’s confidante and Okoye’s lover. Meanwhile, a literal and figurative world away, American black operative Erik Stephens (Jordan), aka Killmonger, has teamed with Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, reprising his role from Age of Ultron) to raid Wakanda in order to steal vibranium, the precious metal that fell to earth long ago and accelerated the technological advancements of Wakanda far beyond its neighbors. Stephens, however, has a greater purpose than Klaue has dreamed, and their machinations lead T’Challa to reunite with American CIA operative Everett Ross (Martin Freeman). Unexpected revelations occur, the long-term reverberations of a shameful act that happened in 1992 echo through the present, and fierce debates about the potential for colonialist interventionism to arise from pure and honest intentions, the de facto violence of isolationism in a world teetering on the precipice, and the wisdom of building bridges versus the foolishness of building walls arise.

That’s a lot of discourse to wrap up in a 134 minute superhero film that has to introduce nearly a dozen heretofore unseen characters, establish vital information about the history of a fictional nation that is unlike any society in the real world, and create a stunning afro-futurism aesthetic that looks cooler than anything else we’ve seen before in this franchise (only the colorful world of Ragnarok really comes close). On top of that, the film also has to give the audience the action thrills that they’ve come to expect: a (badass) car chase, two slugfests on a waterfall outcropping, a (kind of forgettable) opening sequence under the cover of darkness, a casino shootout, and the final climactic battle. But Coogler manages to compress all of those things into that runtime, and churns out an early contender for one of the best movies of the year. Just like Get Out last year, this is a February release that I predict will continue to be part of the conversation for quite some time to come. Granted, Disney is essentially a national economy unto itself, and this is a “product” for them in the strictest sense, but Marvel Studios seems to have learned the lesson that getting out of the way and letting their directors have extensive creative control makes for better art (who could have guessed?). The only bad thing about creating a movie with so many rich layers and elements is that it’s almost impossible to decide where to begin discussion.

First things first: I can see why this movie is making racists angry, especially those who hate being called out on being the recipients of the benefits of being the descendants of colonizers. Ross is explicitly called a colonizer, and much hay is made of the fact that Wakanda has only managed to reach their staggering technological achievements because of the nation’s isolationism, made explicit in the text by showing other African states being devastated by the slave trade in the film’s opening moments. I come from a rural white family and have family members on Facebook, so I know what its like, as I assume you do, to see the same people who want to “Never Forget” incidents like 9/11, Pearl Harbor, the Alamo, and whatever else you can put a name on that involved Americans being heroic in the face of tragedy (although what defines “heroism” and “tragedy” varies from ideology to ideology, especially when talking about something like the Alamo) but are also vocally resistant to movies like the aforementioned 12 Years a Slave, saying things like “why can’t the past be the past?” I’d wager that no matter what walk of life you come from, you’ve got at least one of these people in your social network because of family or work connections; they’re probably going to hate this movie, because this ideology so often goes hand-in-hand with disliking any art made by people of color, regardless of quality (funny that), although they usually couch it in the rhetoric of “it’s not for me” or “I just don’t understand because it’s not something I know.”

And that is not to say that the film is without flaw. Of all the conspiracy nonsense out there, one that I hate the most is the “ancient astronauts” theory. Ever since Erich von Däniken published Chariots of the Gods? in 1968, the idea that various architectural wonders of the ancient world were inspired by extraterrestrial contact has gained wide acceptance among the irrational, a problem that has only been exacerbated by the History Channel’s passive approval of the idea with the launch of TV shows like Ancient Aliens. But the truth of the matter is that the “paleo contact” and “ancient astronauts” hypotheses are also part of a colonial narrative. Europeans in Africa and the New World saw the ziggurats and pyramids that had been built using rope, stone, wood, and gumption and said to themselves “Well, sure Monte d’Accoddi and the Hulbjerg Jættestue and Newgrange were ancient structures that our ancestors built with primitive tools, but how on earth did these non-white pagans do it? [Snaps] That’s it! There’s no way that they could have expressed such ingenuity… on earth. They must have had help from spacemen!” I’ll admit that I’m a huge nerd and, frankly, very little would make me happier than any sort of evidence of extraterrestrial contact, but this “theory” and all the “evidence” for it starts from the presupposition that non-whites outside of Europe were inherently savage and incapable of the same architectural feats as their European contemporaries. This concept was manufactured out of nothing based on the core idea of denying African and South American ingenuity. Again, this is a long aside, but the reason that I bring this up is that there is a smidgen of this in Black Panther, as Wakanda’s futuristic nature is only possible because of the presence of vibranium. One could argue that Black Panther devalues and undermines African inventiveness in much the same way as von Däniken and his followers by showing a nation that is only exceptional because of an external event; on the other hand, real world history often demonstrates that nations can rise and fall based upon the presence or absence of certain natural resources, and that the film treats the abundance of vibranium beneath Wakanda’s surface as such. As a potential problematic issue in the text, it’s minor, but something I expect to generate an inevitable argument about how “Black Panther isn’t as progressive as you think” in the coming weeks. There’ll probably be some complaints about the monarchic nature of Wakanda as well, despite that the potentiality of abuse of power within that method of governance is addressed pretty explicitly in the text.

Everything else is amazing. It’s beautiful. As excited as I was to see this movie, I’m glad that I waited until it was in its second weekend, and that we’re going to be pushing back the publication of this review. As I was reading Shoshana Kessock’s essay “The Feminism of Black Panther vs. Wonder Woman” this morning while waiting for the bus, she perfectly encapsulated my feelings about this: “[T]here are other voices than mine which should take precedent [sic] in a conversation about a film so strongly impacting people of color right now. There are so many writers of color putting out thoughtful, insightful articles about Black Panther that I felt it was important for me […] to sit back and listen without stepping in and having my say.” I have so much more that I want to say about the movie, but it’s important now for me to stop taking up your time with this writing and send you forth into the world to see the movie, read the brilliant discourse that the film has created (here, here, here, and here are good places to start, and this is a counterpoint that raises interesting issues), and be excellent to each other.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Jungle Book (2016)

bear

fourstar

I’ve gone on record as not being a particularly huge fan of Jon Favreau’s Iron Man movies, but it seems the director might’ve learned a thing or two about how to deliver a big budget CG spectacle while helming that franchise. Favreau’s latest effort, The Jungle Book, is a “live action” remake of a Disney animation classic & marks the director’s most impressive work to date. I put “live action” in quotes because there’s really only one live action character here existing in a computer animated world, newcomer Neel Sethi as the protagonist Mowgli, which sort of positions The Jungle Book among nostalgia-inducing titles like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and, less deservedly so, Cool World. The film intentionally cultivates this nostalgic lens through certain subtle details like a decades-old yellow font for the credits that look like they were lifted straight from an ancient VHS cassette. It’s a smart decision that eases the audience into a certain level of comfort & familiarity despite the state-the-art technical prowess on display. Again, Favreau seems to know exactly what he’s doing here, as if he’s seen it all before.

The story of The Jungle Book may be familiar to many audiences by now, but I’ve personally never read its Rudyard Kipling-penned source material & it’s been a good two decades since I’ve seen the Disney original, so I honestly didn’t remember jack shit about it going in. The only detail of The Jungle Book that was clear to me when I entered the theater yesterday was the character Baloo’s personal anthem “Bear Necessities”. Indeed, the modern version of this story doesn’t truly come alive until Baloo’s personal laid back huckster philosophy enters the scene. Early depictions of the lovable scamp Mowgli interacting with various animals of the jungle (after being raised by a pack of wolves like a little badass) range from cute to terrifying to majestic, but also lack a distinct personality & emotional pallet that Baloo brings to the table. The Jungle Book is a two-fold tale of revenge (one for Mowgli & one for the wicked tiger Shere Khan) as well as a classic coming of age story about a hero finding their place in the world, but those plot machinations are somewhat insignificant in comparison to the emotional core of Baloo’s close friendship with Mowgli (which develops a little quickly here; I’d like to have seen it given a little more room to breathe). So much of that impact rests on the all-too-capable shoulders of one Bill Murray, who delivers his best performance in years here (outside maybe his collaborations with Wes Anderson).

You might think that performance wouldn’t matter so much in a film populated with CG animals, but part of what makes The Jungle Book such a technical marvel is how realistic the animal faces are while still retaining the expressive qualities of the actors who voice them. The film essentially looks like those nature-themed t-shirts you can only seem to buy at national parks & gun shows come to life, but it’s the motion capture technology that adds a whole other layer of awe to the film’s visuals. Lupita Nyong’o is very sweet as the wolf mother Rashka who tells who tells Mowgli things like “No matter where you go or what they call you, you will always be my son.” Christopher Walken is wonderfully bizarre as the mythically gigantic orangutan King Louie (I’m guessing his uncomfortable turn as Captain Hook last year was a kind of dry run?). ScarJo & Idris Elba are both effectively terrifying in their respective roles as a murderous snake & tiger (with Johansson more or less combining her parts in Her & Under the Skin on her end). None impress quite as much as Murray does here as the con artist bear Baloo, however. Just look at his Harry and the Hendersons moment when he has to push Mowgli away despite his deep affection and you’ll find more pathos in those thirty seconds than most of the rest of the film could carry with all the time in the world. Murray has always been exceptional in his interactions with children on camera & his casting here was a brilliant choice that elevated the material greatly in terms of emotional impact.

That being said, I do feel there was somewhat of an emotional deficit at work here that made The Jungle Book more of a technical achievement than an all-around cinematic one. This was the most awe-inspiring depiction of talking animals I can think of since George Miller’s Babe (and one of the best depictions of animal coexistence politics since Babe 2: Pig in the City), but it didn’t quite reach Babe’s emotionally impactful penchant for drama. I could easily recommend The Jungle Book the same way I’d recommend a Hugo or a Dredd. You have to see this movie in the theater. You have to see it in 3D. I just don’t think it commands quite the same emotional weight as some of Disney’s more pointed work, with Zootopia being a great example from earlier this year. I should note that I might’ve been a little distracted by exceptionally poor movie theater etiquette at the particular screening I attended (screaming children, repetitive Facebooking, 4/20 bros acting unruly, the full gamut), but my emotional detachment from the film still remains true. It was beautiful to look at & Baloo made it fun, but I wish it had hit me harder square in the feelings.

It’s also worth mentioning, because it’s such an unfamiliar reaction for me, that the end credits for the film might’ve been my favorite part of the whole ordeal. The obnoxious crowd scuttled out of the theater & left me mostly alone with a beautiful pop-up book animation on a blue velvet background that made excellent use of the 3D technology on hand by playing with depth & scale. Walken’s weirdo performance also returned to serenade the (mostly empty) crowd with more New Orleans-inspired tunage and that oddly nostalgic yellow font returned to make me feel warm & fuzzy for reasons that are difficult to pinpoint. All that was missing was some extra Bill Murray content. It sounds kind of vapid to say, but the end credits in itself seemed to position The Jungle Book as a huge advancement in cinema’s visual tools, with encouraging implications as to how that advancement could be applied in a meticulously manicured art film (once it’s more affordable/accessible). The film was visually fascinating & at times wildly fun, but for the most part it just made me excited about the future of movies in general.

-Brandon Ledet