Us (2019) Film: Hands Across America Event Illicits a Strong Time & Place

Hands Across America was a benefit event and publicity campaign staged on Sunday, May 25, 1986 in which approximately 6.5 million people held hands in a human chain for fifteen minutes along a path across the contiguous United States.

Director Jordan Peele uses the time period of 1986 to show a younger version of the main character. Peele utilizes the famous Hands Across America event to bring us into the urgency of the moment.

It’s an oft-used but very solid screenwriting nugget to help flesh out and bring to life a scene: use some sort of promotional material from the recent past, such as when – for example – modern day films sneak in Bush-Cheney campaign posters in the background of shots in order to illicit a certain emotional response or bring up memories of said event.

Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” did this well, utilizing a myriad of tools (including but not limited to presidential campaign lawn signs) to re-orient us into a particular time and place, a much-needed tool given the fact that the story moves through many years (decades) of time.

We remember really impactful presidential campaigns (if we were alive and self-aware enough to consciously live through and experience it). Every audience member isn’t going to have the same response to these tokens as the person sitting beside them but if the filmmaker picks a bold and memorable cultural artifact we should at least be able to recognize it and be able to identify where/when it was born into existence in relation to our lives.

It seems like an easy and super obvious storytelling trick to orient the audience to a time and place, but so often it is ignored, misused or underused as an effective filmmaking tool (especially in horror films). Too many movies go the dull and easy route, simply slapping white text across the bottom of the frame and labeling a time as 1976 or Twelve Years Earlier, as easy to pull off as just simply listing ingredients on the side of a soup can. Try harder…

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Bernie Sanders: The Issues Candidate

Bernie Sanders the candidate never really impressed me in the sort of transcendent manner that he did for some and I’d admit that I wish I wasn’t so callous to the point that I’m almost a little jealous that people around my age (24) could fall so totally and completely in love with a political figure such as Sanders.

It seemed to me that his appeal in 2016 was his straight forward, issue-centric exploration of American political ideas/ideals. He enthusiastically repeated himself on the campaign trail (Sanders famously likes to write every word that he speaks aloud, apparently), illustrating his economic or tax-related concepts with the practiced clarity of an old preacher.

A vote for Bernie is a vote for a refreshingly different political standard of anti-personality, pro-thought governing…literally the exact opposite standard of Donald J. Trump.

The problem is that Trump has now – in 2019 – taken America by the throat and dragged us back eight steps.

Do we want to risk going back 8 more steps and falling down a dark well with murky anti-democratic water to maybe never return from…to try and pull America’s weak-limbed body back up to where it had comfortably sat during Obama’s eight year presidency? (my metaphor is falling apart – i know – only spider-man could take 8 steps back down the interior of a concrete well).

Or do we want to crawl forward two steps at a time with a comforting sense of consistency and certainty? Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will crawl for you (maybe even in a funny zombie-like manner). They will fall back on moderate principles and enact practical systems that will most likely feel more like a 1960’s center-leaning Republican than anything.

But then what if this sort of heightened level of hyper political self-consciousness that I’m doing here (and many \, many other political analysts/commentators do) is adding onto an ever-growing pile of stinky, nasty cynicism that’s continuing to dirty up and stain political conversations in America?

Everybody has an opinion from their armchair, and everybody has an opinion of what other people’s armchair opinions may be. America is jam-packed with a bunch of rip-off, Nate Silver minions with average intelligence and quick triggers, scurrying around and slapping red solo cups (ideas) out of people’s hands, particularly the many groups of fervent and very young Bernie supporters.

Are they outspoken and often very wrong about hot button issues, such as when recently a USC student filmed herself passionately screaming at a pregnant Chelsea Clinton for her ‘perceived’ islamophobic comments two weeks prior? Yes.

But for each of these boisterous supporters, there are ten more that are interested solely in Bernie’s ideas for a more equitable political and economic climate in America, such as my dad – Terry – and his longtime friend, Pat (who I was partly named after – my middle name is Patrick).

The both of them wanted/want Bernie for all the right reasons – taxing the wealthy, reversing/easing the harmful symptoms of climate change, etc.

But it’s just not practically feasible to try to elect a candidate based solely on their ideas alone – and don’t think for a second that I don’t realize how unfortunate and depressing such a statement is for the state of politics in America.

Sanders’ unique wielding of grassroots politics, utilizing small donations from supporters to fund his campaign reveals a lot about the potential for a truly Democratic election process.

Sanders’ supporters have a really truly huge online presence, turning an election year sideways, fading the line between supporter and political aide. A journalist bashing other Dem candidates while at the same time not disclosing that he’s working for (or in the midst of a test trial to eventually work for said candidate…sure, whatever) a rival candidate is unethical and doesn’t speak volumes of Bernie actually backing up all of his big talk in regards to gender/race related representation.

“Journalist” David Sirota is white, male…very similar to the race/sex of nearly 80% ofthe staff working for Bernie in his 2016 campaign, though he seems to have taken the criticism to heart, bringing much more diversity to his 2020 team (that in itself is an important signal, not at all coming off as a false PR note: it’s refreshing to see a candidate accept faults and then actually put in the effort to correct them).

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A campaign aide masquerading as a journalist (such as Sirota has been doing) doesn’t set a great early tone for Bernie’s ever-growing campaign team. Apparently Sanders had sent out a mass email to his supporters before entering the young 2020 race, calmly denouncing any form of harassment and asking for the utmost of civility.

But hiring an attack dog such as Sirota as a senior communications official doesn’t exactly ring of empathy or non-division, which are as far way from most campaign offices that you’d have to buy a plane ticket in order to reach them.

For me, the problem with Bernie Sanders really does’t involve Sanders himself all that much: I simply can’t get the memory of his predominantly millennial-aged, crybaby supporters rioting at the 2016 Democratic National Committee, refusing to get behind Hillary Clinton. They were one of many factors that caused the worst and most unorthodox Republican candidate in decades to get elected (despite famously not even winning the popular vote).

Bernie has made himself into a noteworthy figure in modern American history, but based on his actions and impact on the 2016 presidential election, not on the 2020 election.

At the risk of sounding overly cruel (I’ll take it): if there’s anything that could sum up Bernie’s 2020 run, it’s the story that came out a week ago alleging that 77-year old presidential candidate had cut himself on the glass of a shower door and had to receive 6 stitches.

The passion of the Sanders campaign and its supporters doesn’t come around every four years, a very unheard of and uncommon form of passion (cutting your head on a sliding glass door whilst exiting the shower? Very rare, I’d think).

Messy, very unlikely, hard to explain how it could happen or if he needs more help traversing this new ground. Bernie will always be a provocative conversation starter but  if we’re being realistic…he won’t be stationed and parked outside 1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, anytime soon.

 

It (2017) – Film Review

“It” wasn’t supposed to garner the biggest September box office opening of all time. “It” had been in development turmoil for awhile, swapping directors, dropping Will Coulter as the actor to play Pennywise, and generally being bogged down by a bad streak of Stephen King movies. The Dark Tower was a disaster both financially and critically. But despite all of the doubts, the team behind “It” moved past it through great casting, a distinct visual palette, and a star turn from Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise the Dancing Clown.

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Finn Wolfhard, the main character from Netflix’s Stranger Things, plays the wise-cracking Richie in “It”, a change in tone from his earnest TV persona. He swears and brags about sex he’s never had. He brings a great comedic lightness to the movie, an important glue character that ties the group of troubled kids together.

Bill, played by Jaeden Lieberher, is the stuttering older brother of Georgie, the infamous victim of Pennywise’s sewer tricks. He has an emotional arc surrounding his brother that’s very intense and heartfelt. It’s made all the better by the filmmakers choosing to focus only on the characters as children, not flashing back and forth between their adult years. That will be the sequel, apparently.

Sophia Lillis plays Beverly, the tomboy girl with both an undeserved reputation at school and a hostile relationship with her heated father. She’s looking for someone to latch onto, and the losers, the main group of kids that hangout together, including Bill and Richie, a sympathetic fat boy and a home-schooled outsider, are the first she finds. She is more mature and even looks three years older than all of them. She fits in within their little squad very quickly.

Pennywise isn’t just a scary killer clown; he’s a monster capable of transporting and morphing into different entities. His mouth can shape-shift into a long, wide black hole filled with a hundred spears of teeth. But the natural physical gestures performed by Bill Skarsgard are plenty creepy enough.

An “It” producer said in a press interview that they consciously created a strategy to keep Skarsgard out of the late night circuits and press junket interviews. By doing this, the producer explained, the viewer would see Pennywise the monster first and Skarsgard the actor second. His piercing eyes and odd lip movements are huge aspects of the performance, and his real-life interviews don’t mask these intense features/expressions that landed him the role in the first place. If his face were all over magazine covers, the mystique of the Pennywise look wouldn’t be as immediate or as thrilling. Viewers would look at the clown and be able to point out the quirky gestures of the Swedish actor.

Bill Skarsgard made some sort of comment comparing his performance as Pennywise to Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight. I don’t know the context of his actual statement, but if he was saying that he had taken inspiration from Ledger’s Joker, it’s very apparent within the film. He shakes his head and laughs hoarsely at the kids, mimicking their state of absolute terror in the same way Ledger laughed as he was beat down by Batman while being interrogated. The reckless, unfiltered joy in the chaos and violence. They share a lot of common qualities in their performances, though Ledger’s makeup was dried and peeling and Pennywise’s face has been intricately painted and adjusted with CGI effects.

The new Stephen King adaption is a definite success on a long checklist of big-screen failures. “It” is a classic, well-known story with a tantalizingly creepy, enduring villain. If you’re worried about “It 2: The Adults”, be reassured that Pennywise will return and be as welcome as he has been in 2017. He’s a timeless character that will always hold some sort of grasp on audience’s fears.

Get Out (2016) – Film Review

Get Out is a marvel of a movie in an age where explosions and VFX are the main magnets that pull popular audiences out and into a comfy multiplex armchair. On the surface, both in the trailers and in the first act build-up, it’s a story about characters and social interactions. It plays off cultural stereotypes and commonly misused/abused racial phrases, contrasting some very real and at times shocking attitudes without pulling any punches. Yet it all seems too on the button, too hyper-focused and self-aware to be a movie that’s just about a family not accepting their daughters black boyfriend. And it’s not just that; there’s much more to it.

Daniel Kaluuya plays Chris, an excited but hyper-nervous boyfriend. He leans on his girlfriend, Rose, played by Allison Williams, helping to ease her worries through cute jokes and quips. Rose’s innocent, red-cheeked demeanor feels like a sort of android or human replicant that acts exactly like a stereotypical white college girlfriend acts. She’s way too accommodating to him; there isn’t any real drama between the two of them, only love and kisses, smoke and mirrors.

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The films marketing campaign focused heavily on the concept of a white young woman bringing her dark-skinned, African-American boyfriend out to the families farm estate.

The advertisements didn’t reveal much about the intricate plot details. With a very reasonable budget of 4.5 million, the producers of Get Out were hoping that, as a hybrid 2017 horror movie, the film would work best as a word-of-mouth product as opposed to releasing it in a more traditional manner through relentless TV marketing.

The studios certainly didn’t need to buy big TV ad spots in the end. As of mid-April, Jordan Peele’s horror film has grossed an impressive 184 million.

With overwhelming critical approval and praise, as well as the instant name recognition stemming from Peele’s hit show, Key & Peele, the film’s producers had very good reason to take a step back and let the quality of the movie speak for itself.

Director Jordan Peele has always professed a love for horror films, good or bad or atrociously bad. He has also expressed his fairly unique perspective on race. Peele is a half black man raised by and growing up alongside a predominantly white family.

A major part of Get Out involves small interactions between Chris and Rose’ parents’ white, country-club friends. These encounters are sometimes staged bluntly for comedic effect or in a more subtle manner to help build ambiguity and mystery.

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At times, the social satire veers towards being a bit too transparent, such as when the father, Dean Armitage, played by Bradley Whitford, insists to Chris that he would definitely vote for Obama for a third term, if he could.

A white man complimenting an African-American man on his “prowess” or “muscular strength” may appear to be a compliment at face-value, but those on the receiving end of the compliments clearly feel uncomfortable. They feel like they are being evaluated. It’s as if their body and entire being are being mentally measured and weighed for current or potential value, similar in a way to the extreme scouting tactics used on young, pre-teen athletes.

The story arc comes and goes without any lingering moments dragging down the fast-paced narrative. The first half introduces us to the characters and scenarios, giving the audience time to think about the direction of the story, to ponder about the potential twists and turns. Peele buys himself enough time in the first half of the movie to convince the audience that we know what kind of movie we’re watching, only to have the rug firmly pulled out from under us in the final act.

Some of the plot points don’t entirely add up, though I won’t go into spoiler territory. I think It’s important, though, to think more about the social and cultural messages rather than the labyrinthian, complex narrative.

The story details don’t 100% hold up upon multiple viewings, but the entertainment value remains the same. There’s plenty to talk about, and part of the fun is seeing it with someone for the first time and helping them fill in the pieces to the puzzle. Compared to the multitude of uninspired and unoriginal horror films being punched out these days, Get Out should get an oscar nom.

Overall, Get Out is a thoughtful look at race relations in America. It’s both funny and bleak in the way that it shatters stereotypes that people still commonly use to this day. A piercingly bold and occasionally frightening ride through the eyes of a young African-American man.

The Dead Zone (1983)

David Cronenberg’s ‘The Dead Zone’ has the usual characteristics that accompany his films; slow, character-driven narrative; intelligent use of story concepts and a keen sense of suspense. But the episodic, time-leaping narrative doesn’t feel like the sort of loose storytelling suitable for the concept behind the film. It features Christopher Walken as a second-sighter, a man who by touching the hand of a person with his own can see beyond the present and envision future tragedies or murders. The film develops his powers through episodes and encounters with certain people; after a car accident and five years in a coma, he wakes up to find his once true love has understandingly moved on. This leads to several emotionally intense scenes between the two, but he loves Sarah enough to not be angry or disapproving of her decision to move on with her life.

Though it is similar to Cronenberg’s style, it is also a somewhat mainstream turn for the director. Based on a Stephen King novel, it shows just how far Cronenberg refuses to bend his personal touch for the sake of mass audience appeal : not very much. Some viewers may find slow scenes of character development tiresome; but most, I think, would find the concept intriguing and the suspense enchanting.

Once Johnny rehabilitates, he sees the first hints of his powers through his Doctor, Sam Weizak. When he touches his hand, he’s able to view or re-live the doctor’s past, during a thriving war, filled with rolling tanks and fire and angst. Tonally, It seems wrong to make the first vision Johnny has as a massive set-piece; but, this is the first proof to Johnny and his Doctor, after Sam calls his mother, who he thinks has died, upon Johnny’s request, and discovers Johnny is right: she’s alive.

Johnny’s second-sight ability is exploited through the media. During a press conference, a bold man demands answers about Johnny’s abilities. He flies up to Johnny at his table, sits down and extends his hand, an experiment, though a little different than the one seen in Cronenberg’s earlier feature, Scanners, where a man’s head pops like a tomato. This reporter is told things he doesn’t want to hear: about his sister, about his past. He jumps down from the hot-seat angry: the joke isn’t funny, and Johnny, played with utter psychosis by Christopher Walken, is not laughing.

The set-design on The Dead Zone has an eerie, small-town tone to it that, if you’ve ever read Stephen King, feels like the adaption is not only of the words, but the feel as well of working-class terror.

Cronenberg doesn’t use the second sight as a narrative tool or a mechanism to throw the viewer off. He could very easily have mixed reality with prediction and created a much more mind-bending film; but instead, he makes a practical movie with emotional intelligence and scene after scene of brooding tenseness.

The Return of The Living Dead (1985)

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It’s rare to see a sequel directly mention its predecessor in the dialogue. Dan O’Bannon’s film mentions the past, and because it recognizes its parents existence, it allows the filmmakers to have complete creative control to mock and satirize the original as much as they want.

Many of the sequences are flat-out hilarious, a tongue-in-cheek look at our view of typical 1980s horror teenagers and humanity’s innate ability to make really bad judgements.

The characters truly believe that the easiest way to get rid of the threat of zombies is to burn them. They repeatedly do this, even after zombies start rising from the soil, ignorant of the cause of it all: They’re burning the zombies into a gaseous dust-chemical-virus hybrid and sending it out into the atmosphere, tainting the characters oxygen on the surface.

The characters feel a little bit like John Hughes creations, a sense of spunk and youthfulness running through and energizing the young group.

It moves from scene to scene with palpable anxiety, a tinge of comic-relief spliced in hear and there. The little antics, such as the old morgue attendant, Ernie, trying to snuggle up with a young girl who’s in complete shock.

The film blends comedy with outrageous bodily gore seamlessly, like a premiere, gold-edition episode of Tales From the Crypt.  It wasn’t as much of a formula in the 80s, and is without a doubt a pioneer of the horror-comedy genre.

The sense of invention in horror cinema is lost when studios accept the formula as perfect and untouchable because it’s simply crowd-pleasing.

The Return of the Living Dead is a joy ride through a zombie infected town. Lovably stupid and impulsively watchable, the wide variety of characters defend themselves with limited knowledge and miscellaneous, random weaponry.

The morgue location provides a different perspective on the usual zombie defense-grounds. Most of the Night of the Living Dead rip-offs don’t realize that tense, well-lit atmosphere is the key. The Return of the Living Dead plasters on a thick layer of situational comedy and the ensuing results are hilarious.

Scanners (1981)

Scanners, directed by horror wise guy David Cronenberg, is a film where the director seems to be smoothing out his style. A majority of the shots involve the camera panning towards a character, in a shoulder shot, with his or her eyes gazing up at something with their big, scanner eyes. It’s done repetitively, and runs tiresome, but the plot is taken into newly explained depth and the actors always make it involving. Cameron Vale, the guy that reminds you of Luke from Star Wars with his sense of virtue, is used by Doctor Paul Ruth to fight against the scanners who have joined together. The leader of this underground group, who we meet personally when he assassinates a scanner at a presentation, is Darryl Revok. He will stop at nothing to find Cameron, and has already killed many scanners who wouldn’t cooperate with him.

The film has a way with muddying the motivations of its characters. No-one from the start is who they seem to be, except Cameron, who as a scanner barely has a personality because he thinks and thinks all of the people’s thoughts around him, as a telepathic. Dr. Paul Ruth has a serum that can suppress this and make all input from other thoughts gone. I’m not sure why Cameron didn’t want this more than he did, for it was the whole problem before Dr. Paul found him.

It ultimately doesn’t let us know who to root for; we are in contact with several double-sided misfits, but don’t know if what their doing is wrong. I think the lack of motivation in Cameron is a key disappointment; what did the Doctor do to get him on his side? Put fifty people in his room and let him suffer from their thoughts? Grumble his raspy voice like a wise-man?

The set-design is always meticulous and atmospheric, though. The scene where Cameron goes to the Artists house is incredible, where he has a massive skull made out of some sort of clay. They hide inside of it, and while the artist walks out and is blown to pieces by guns, Cameron resides inside the head, a metaphor, and scans all of the people around him. He walks out fine, but the artist has died.

The film boasts fine performances and an engaging plot, no matter how under developed the characters were compared to Cronenberg films like ‘The Fly’. It’s a gruesome, horror aficionado’s hot-list entree.