Why Comparing GET OUT and US is Wrong and Why We Shouldn’t

A Summary About Why I’m Upset:

Jordan Peele, ah. What a legendary name, already being called the next Spielberg, the next Hitchcock, the next, I don’t know, I even read the next Kubrick. He’s none of these people and he will never be one of these people. I believe he has the possibility to SURPASS these people, and I think you guys are finally awake and ready to read that. Read it again. A director, a black director, a director in 2019, in the modern age of cinema has the possibility to surpass the names listed. Just let him.

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Peele behind the camera

US and How Revolutionary It Actually Is

Now, this has no spoilers, but I want to get into why Us, directed by the already revolutionary Jordan Peele, is so unique and incredible without it being compared. It’s original, it’s visually something I couldn’t take my eyes off of – nobody could. Just the way Peele uses the color blue makes my eyes water, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Everything was pitch perfect. From the editing, the shots, to the acting, to that SCORE. Using ‘I Got 5 On It‘,  and editing it to fit perfectly with one of the best horror scenes ever in film (I went there) was incredible. It’s just so upsetting when a director who is proving himself to be original, artistic, and giving the people what they want, has to go through so much comparison and hate. Let him breathe.

Why You Shouldn’t Compare GET OUT and US

Well, to make it clear, I hate comparing anyone’s current film to their previous one, just as much as I hate comparing actors new roles to their previous roles. “They just weren’t as good as they were in that other one,“. A critic is valid, but what I don’t like is an un-necessary critic: “Why doesn’t Us have enough commentary about race?” or Us just doesn’t make a lot of sense compared to Get Out,“. I believe an artist is allowed to change-up his or her work in every different film they produce or for every different story they tell. But to those that say this film had no commentary is a not valid criticism in itself. Putting in good research and backing up your criticism with valid reasons has always been and should always be the way to becoming a respected critic.

Us (2019) – source: Universal Pictures

What I’ve Noticed With People and Their Bias Towards Other Directors

Let’s be real: we all have a favorite or multiple favorite directors, and no matter what, we will always want to watch their work unfold. Things I’ve noticed from people online, people locally is that they love to downgrade artists for not being their favorite. That is not okay, and I see it happening with Jordan Peele. He isn’t the next Spielberg, not the next Hitchcock. He is his own artist, giving his own vision to us – to experience, to laugh at, to get scared of. He’s learning, very much like the rest of us who have dreams of being in the film industry. So the next time you criticize a film, be mindful of the creators and give them valid criticism and valid reasoning to make them better, you don’t want to scare them away from doing more work, you want to inspire them to be their best, do their best, write better, scare better, make more people laugh, have more shots to be remembered. Just be nice people who are proving themselves to be masters of film-making. Don’t get comfortable. Thank you.

Us (2019) – source: Universal Pictures

My Relationship with SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK

Shortly after I finished high school, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. By that time, I was struggling with depression and anxiety that made it hard for me to socialize. It got to the point where I was sent to a therapeutic school to finish out my senior year. I graduated in 2015, but still struggled with my condition. Since 2014, I have been in and out of hospitals and group programs and was bouncing from psychiatrist to psychiatrist. My most recent bipolar episode happened at the beginning of March this year.

That period of time was when I started to fall in love with movies. One of them was the romantic comedy Silver Linings Playbook, a movie about mental illness made for people with a mental illness. I fell in love with the movie, but I felt a deeper connection to it following my bipolar diagnosis. To this day, it remains one of my favorite movies of all time.

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Silver Linings Playbook (2012) – source: The Weinstein Company

The movie, based on the novel by Matthew Quick, opens with a man named Pat Solitano being checked out of a mental hospital in Baltimore by his mother. He gets driven back to his hometown of Philadelphia and stays with his mom and dad, and the latter is just as problematic as his offspring. Pat Jr. is played by Bradley Cooper, while the parents are played by Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver. Cooper struggles with bipolar disorder and was sent to the hospital for beating a man for having an affair with his wife, Nikki.

For the majority of the film, Pat Jr. is experiencing what many people know as hypomania, showing he has bipolar type 2 as opposed to type 1 which usually comes with visual and auditory hallucinations. He vows to get his life back on track by reading and exercising more in an attempt to impress Nikki. His father, Pat Sr., has no diagnosis, but follows certain rituals while watching the Philadelphia Eagles on TV (the notable one being moving every remote at once). Pat Sr. also has unresolved anger issues that got him banned from Lincoln Financial Field. Meanwhile, the mother is left as the unsung hero solely from how patient she is with these two crazy men under her roof.

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Silver Linings Playbook (2012) – source: The Weinstein Company

At one point, Pat Jr. gets together with some friends for dinner. Among them is Jennifer Lawrence’s character, Tiffany. Her role as Tiffany may have been overshadowed by the start of The Hunger Games franchise that year, but I will always remember her for the role, which ending up winning her an Oscar. Tiffany is very feisty and in your face for the majority of the film, and shows signs of Borderline Personality Disorder. Over dinner, she and Pat Jr. exchange notes concerning medications they’re on or have been on.

Something you may hear a lot during this review is “I’ve done that too”. The support group I go to for depression and bipolar disorder will talk about medication once in a while and our own experiences with it (since we’re technically not medical professionals).

When Pat Jr. gets home late, all he can think about is Nikki, leading to a scene where he has a major episode that results in him hitting his mom and fighting with his dad. They make amends the following morning shortly before Pat Jr. goes off on his routine run. During that run, he encounters Tiffany again. They get to know each other more and during an amusing diner scene, in which she confides to Pat that she lost her job by being a huge nymphomaniac in the time following her husband’s death. They have a minor falling out after he says she’s crazier than he is, but quickly make up.

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Silver Linings Playbook (2012) – source: The Weinstein Company

While Cooper, De Niro and even Weaver turn in great performances that earned all three of them nominations at the Oscars, it’s Lawrence who is this movie’s MVP. She knows she’s crazy but doesn’t mind. In some scenes, she’s shown to embrace her mental illness, as opposed to Pat who is just trying to get by with it. It’s fitting that Jennifer Lawrence won Best Actress for her part, making her one of the youngest winners in the category.

Pat’s character arc may be one of the most relatable arcs I’ve seen. My most recent stay in a psychiatric hospital was about a week. Right before that, I was being monitored physically due to an attempted overdose on prescription medication. Since being released from the hospital, I vowed to get my life back on track. I’ve been eating better, working out more, and (like Pat) reading more.

I believe that everybody has at least one movie that they can connect to on a personal level. Silver Linings Playbook will always be one of my favorites. It was one of the handful of movies that was there when I needed help the most. And with that being said, I’d like to close this piece with a quote from the movie, courtesy of Pat Solitano, Jr.

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Silver Linings Playbook (2012) – source: The Weinstein Company

The world will break your heart ten ways to Sunday. That’s guaranteed. I can’t begin to explain that. Or the craziness inside myself  and everyone else. But guess what? Sunday’s my favorite day again. I think of what everyone did for me, and I feel like a very lucky guy.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

THOROUGHBREDS and the Murderous Teenage Girls Cinematic Universe

The climactic scene at the end of Cory Finley’s 2017 directorial debut Thoroughbreds is quite extraordinary. Amanda (Olivia Cooke) sleeps on a couch, after knowingly consuming a drugged drink while her friend Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) murders her stepfather. The scene is a long take, slowly creeping in on Amanda’s sleeping form while the TV in the background muffles the sounds of the murder itself. The audience hears the consistent droning of a rowing machine, a series of thuds, and then nothing. Lily returns, soaked in blood which she wipes on Amanda to frame her for the crime, then curls up under her arm, whimpering.

Continue reading “THOROUGHBREDS and the Murderous Teenage Girls Cinematic Universe”

NONA: A Question of Clarity and Conduct

Nona is hard to pin down. On one hand, offbeat, creative, and technical choices feel like they act as a disappointing detriment to the story that director Michael Polish is aiming for. However, undeniable charm and good intentions shine through the muddy waters and create a unique, authentic experience.

Nona (2017) – Source: TriCoast Worldwide

The film follows an unnamed Honduran girl, whom we are told to call Nona (an abbreviation for ‘nobody’s name’, which is revealed later in a prostitution house). Nona works in funeral care, but seeks something more – to see her mother in the US. 

Nona (2017) – Source: TriCoast Worldwide

Hecho, a ‘Mexican passing through’, asks if she wishes to come to the States with him. She agrees, believing this offer to be one of mysticism and amiable altruism. The story takes a sharp turn around the 60-minute mark, and the breadcrumbs of Hecho’s shady dealings come to a culmination as Nona is forced into prostitution and human trafficking.  

An indisputably important issue, however, Nona struggles to keep up with its’ own grand ideas. A feeling of incoherence echoes through the film in its road trip portion, and only when the story turns and all is explained directly to the viewer does the film break into a sprint to get the narrative wrapped up. For the sake of ease, the film will, from here on out, be split into two sections – the journey, and the destination. The journey, before Nona submits to Hecho and is trafficked, is packed full of landscape cinematography, almost pretentious art house dialogue, and sweet, quiet chemistry. The destination is, albeit drained of some power due to being so late in the run time, helplessly heartbreaking. This section feels the most coherent, the pacing feels better and the slightly shaky plot is honed in on, despite in an obvious, easily digested fashion. 

Nona (2017) – Source: TriCoast Worldwide

Sulem Calderon (Nona), a newcomer, breaks out in this section of the film. Her focus on the sense of solidarity between the victims, instead of an overworked, gratuitous representation of violence and rape, speaks to the faith that Nona has in her religion, her world, and her own spirit. In spite of her character being relatively vague, the chemistry she has with Jesy McKinney (Hecho) becomes a fairy-tale force, and the presence she has on screen is an impressive feat. In tandem with an upbeat and quirky score, colorful and loving cinematography, and luckily, a decently intriguing voice-over, their platonic voyage is a sufficient way to spend an hour of run time.

The film ends with Nona being taken in by police, and Kate Bosworth’s detective character questioning her. Bosworth gives a monologue explaining the events of the previous 85 minutes – each glimmer of betrayal by Hecho comes to light, and each questionable choice melts away as the story comes to a climax, mirroring the first shot, settling on Nona’s face. The detective asks her name, to which she responds – Nona. The plot falls into place for everyone. However, Nona is still unaware, detached through a language barrier. Like a lot of the other victims, she has forgotten her name, her identity. All that is left in the frame is her face. All that is left for her is her physical form – what is tangible, and what can be used. Her body.

Nona (2017) – Source: TriCoast Worldwide

Nona has a murky presentation, and an unclear aim at times, but likeable actors and an ambitious, meaningful story make up for a trivial few unmotivated cuts and a simple forgivable roughness. In all its’ good intentions, I wanted to like Nona, and after a little bit of thought, I think I do. 

Unpopular Opinion: The Edge of Seventeen is Better Than Lady Bird

Hear me out.

Coming-of-age stories are much more significant than just being relatable teen content. For young people like me who are gradually entering adulthood, they allow us to escape from reality, but also face it; we are able to see how characters in a story react to situations and compare that to our own experiences. They present characters that we can relate to and help us find humor and beauty in ordinary life. High school coming-of-age films have been around for decades, and often seen as cliche. But the beauty with these types of films is that with every year, new filmmakers refine and improve the ‘overused’ genre to stay current and relatable to a modern teenager.

To me, The Edge of Seventeen (2016) is a perfect example of how powerful a coming-of-age story can be. As I watched the narrative unfold, many repressed memories of my high school years came flooding back in – but not in a bad way. I am thankful for this movie and how it helped me cope with my senior year, validating even my smallest teenage frustrations. The Edge of Seventeen was directed by Kelly Fremon Craig and is the story of seventeen-year-old Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld), who is simply trying to survive junior year alongside her best friend, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson).

After her brother starts dating Krista, Nadine finds herself completely alone since her father passed away and her mother is emotionally unavailable. The subtle pettiness, rebellion, dark sense of humor and loneliness intertwined in this story makes it the most realistic coming-of-age movie I have ever seen. But, most importantly The Edge of Seventeen does something I have rarely seen in movies; it flawlessly shows that underneath all of Nadine’s external complications, she is ultimately fighting with herself.

A year later, Lady Bird (2017) was released and soon became the coming-of-age story everybody was talking about. Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird is the story of Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson as she finishes her final year of high school while applying to colleges. Just like any teenage girl, she goes through issues with boys, parents, popularity and identity. Shortly after, Lady Bird was nominated for five Academy Awards and won two Golden Globes. But after watching it, I was confused as to why it was so praised and found myself underwhelmed. Meanwhile, The Edge of Seventeen was only nominated for one Golden Globe and a few awards in smaller film festivals, but I found it left a much stronger impact on me.  

It’s important to note that these two films have a great amount of similarities that I have found. First, they were both written and directed by women (yay), who both made their feature directorial debuts. Both films also had roughly the same budget; Lady Bird’s budget was $10 million and The Edge of Seventeen’s was $9 million. In terms of the narrative, Nadine and Lady Bird were both in high school, had tense relationships with their mothers and got along better with their fathers.

Throughout the two films, they both lose touch with their closest friend and both have a crush on an edgy boy. I would also say they both have selfish and reckless personalities which cause them conflict with a lot of important people in their lives. But the bottom line is that both films are coming-of-age stories filled with laughter, nostalgia, frustration and simply growing up.

I wanted to add a disclaimer that I don’t think Lady Bird is a bad film. But when I put it side by side with The Edge of Seventeen, I found myself wondering why Lady Bird got the recognition it deserved, but The Edge of Seventeen didn’t. In other words, The Edge of Seventeen walked so that Lady Bird could run. Here are the five areas I have broken down where I think The Edge of Seventeen excelled compared to Lady Bird.

Relatability

What typically attracts people to this genre is the comedy, nostalgia and ultimately, relatability. Relatability cannot be forced. It should come naturally and practically unnoticeable to the audience. You don’t have to be in high school to relate to a high school character and what matters most is how the characters react in these situations. The way Nadine deals with everything going on in her life is what made me relate so strongly to her character and then the film; my best friend never dated my brother, nor did I ever accidentally send an explicit text to my crush but that’s not the point. The point is I can see a person in a sticky situation and how she manages (or fails) to get out of it. It’s her reaction to her challenges that makes her relatable to me.

On the other hand, when Lady Bird didn’t want to talk with her mom, she threw herself out of the car. When she wanted to fit in, she dropped her best friend, and when her mom told her that she can’t apply to schools in New York, she went behind her back, applied anyway and went without her approval. Personally, as a teenager girl I never really thought these were ways to deal with situations. Both characters are dramatic and headstrong but Lady Bird was far more difficult to connect with because of the poor choices she made.

Identity

Proma Khosla from Mashable wrote an article about the two girls saying “…they fundamentally don’t know who they are – or don’t like the answer.

This can be perfectly depicted towards the end of The Edge of Seventeen when Nadine confronts her brother about her fears: “You know ever since we were little I would get this feeling like, like I’m floating outside of my body, looking down on myself. And I hate what I see. How I’m acting, the way I sound. And I don’t know how to change it. And I’m so scared that that feeling is never gonna go away,”. Nadine accepting herself wasn’t something that was going to happen by changing her name, going on a date with her dream boy, or meeting new friends. Her monologue shows how throughout the whole film, she was projecting her fears onto others because she was so afraid of who she was or wasn’t.

I gave it to myself. It was given to me, by me,”. To me, Christine’s decision to go by Lady Bird name was just a lazy way to show a character isn’t happy with something they were born with. It seemed too obvious and surface level. Her unhappiness in Sacramento and wanting to move to New York City is so defined in this film and just makes it feel even more cliche.

Loneliness

I think a lot of what kept me much more attached to Nadine was how isolated she became. After Krista started dating her brother, Nadine was the one who suffered. Concurrently, when Lady Bird started hanging out with the cool girl Jenna, her best friend Julie was the one who got hurt. Comparing these two situations, I of course felt more for Nadine. Lady Bird didn’t really suffer that much throughout the film. She even got to go to her dream school and just ends up changing her name back to Christine (of course).

Artistic Choices

What I appreciate so much about The Edge of Seventeen is that artistically, it isn’t over the top. Fremon Craig is able to capture the beauty of Nadine’s life without getting carried away. Her focus was always on the story. It never felt like it was trying to be something more, or something that its not. It felt like Gerwig got caught up with wanting to push the boundaries for what a coming-of-age film could be and forgot to make the story deeper.

Layers

Every story has multiple layers of dilemmas. Like I’ve said earlier, in both of these films, Nadine and Lady Bird have a hard time with being a teenage girl. But what is so exceptional to Nadine’s character is if you look a little closer, her biggest problem is that she is not happy with herself. Nadine fights with a lot of people in The Edge of Seventeen but the toughest battle she dealt with was inside.

Meanwhile, there wasn’t really anything subtle about Lady Birds character. Every problem she faced was right in front of her and never from within; her mom, her financial situation, Sacramento, and being friends with the right people. There wasn’t anything deeper to her problems. Other than the typical abandonment of her best friend to hang out with the cool kids and wanting to move away from home; both cliche and overused in coming-of-age stories.

In Conclusion…

When I told my friend that I wanted to write an article about the two films, she told me she doesn’t see how somebody could compare them. That’s when I realized that these films were made individually, with people who have different intentions and different goals of storytelling. Just because my life doesn’t exactly align with the themes found in Lady Bird,  doesn’t make it any less of a film. I can appreciate Lady Bird for what it is, and I can appreciate The Edge of Seventeen for what it is.

Khosla goes onto say “What both films do so wonderfully is address the nuance of being a teenager…”. Being a teenager is scary, weird, complicated and different for everyone. I applaud both filmmakers for their exceptional storytelling about such a complex age and for their ability to openly connect to their audience and make them feel a part of the experience.

Lady Bird and The Edge of Seventeen are both available to stream online for free if you have Prime Video and Netflix so if you haven’t seen one or both I highly recommend you watch them. Leave your thoughts below on which movie resonates more with you!

And, one more thing: Greta, I still love you.

Criminals in Purgatory: Examining the Morality and Redemption of a few Irish Lads with IN BRUGES

Martin McDonagh has a lot on his mind with his pitch black debut feature In Bruges. We spend ninety minutes with these characters that make decisions which then led into consequences in order to enact some kind of change within themselves or others. It’s an old well that seems as reliable as the crime farce sub-genre itself: can bad people change or feel?

This is the core conflict of the Irish/Belgian people dealing with the same situation, how this reflects who they are as people and clever inferences to their past whilst informing their present.

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In Bruges (2008) – source: Universal Studios

During our time with In Bruges, we follow two hit-men during their time lying low in Bruges, Belgium after a hit has gone south. In fact, it was rookie assassin Ray’s (Colin Farrell) first job, but when we find out he was told to kill a priest, he also killed a little boy without realizing it. His partner Ken (Brendan Gleeson) sees this detour as a chance to take in the cathedral and rustic scenery of Bruges, a convenient get away that he just has to babysit someone inferior to him. Unfortunately, Ken discovers that his boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) wants Ray dead to cover up their tracks and setting moral boundaries with an immoral profession.

Ray is fidgety and whiny, attributes not particularly seen in someone who is supposed to be calm and collected when killing others for a living. Ken (and better yet, the movie) treats him like a little kid who is bored on a family vacation. Ray is constantly calling Bruges a shit hole and has a blatant lack of social un-awareness, unlike Ken, who genuinely enjoys his time in Bruges. This brings out more of a desire to change within Ray, he starts so low that it makes it all the more eager for him to change. When Ken is ordered to take him out, it makes it all the more tragic due to the lack of dehumanization that McDonagh chooses not to characterize. Ray is someone who is capable of change and making a better life for himself, it is here that we can’t see this same thing in Ken since he is just a pleasant man who happens to kill people.

In Bruges (2008) – source: Universal Studios

McDonagh has a clear and visible admiration for Bruges and the timeless bygone era in which he sees. He presents this through the various establishing shots of the haunting, medieval buildings and recognizable pubs where Ken occasionally stops in. Yet through all the love he tells us he has for Bruges, he treats it as somewhat of a purgatory for Ray and his predicament. Since Ray behaves like a kid throughout a majority of the movie, it appears like he is not capable of discovering redemption all by himself. The movie even discusses this in a scene where Ken and Ray stop by a local museum and talk about a painting depicting God and his final days on earth. They eventually get on the subject of heaven and hell and Ray brings up the idea of purgatory to Ken when he hadn’t thought of such a concept. He describes it as the “inbetweeny one, you weren’t all that great but you weren’t all that shit either,” when in actuality, he could be talking about himself. His still someone who isn’t quite morally bankrupt or has desensitized to the violence acted throughout the movie.

This could be due to Ray’s lack of moral code which is exemplified by Harry and his standards later on in the film. He sees letting him go for accidentally killing the kid as intolerable as opposed to Ken who sees Ray as someone who is unfit for the job of a hit-man. There is a particular moment when he begins to break down, starts to process the life that he took from the little boy and how it was cut so short after an incident that could have easily been avoided. Harry is an eccentric but a methodical professional, which separates him from Ray and his constant irritability. Harry takes the effort to draw ethical lines in the sand to make him a better person and improve at his line of work, this can also allow him to have less of the guilt eat away at him.

The film has a sharp and cold sense of humor to it. With as much moral dilemma it has on its mind, there is a healthy dose of nonsensical morbidity that we get particularly commented by Ray. Take the person of short stature, Jimmy. He is relentlessly mocked and humiliated, yet clearly kinda deserves it, with frank remarks about race and mistreatment of the prostitutes and upheaval of drugs. It is left ambiguous as to why but maybe the unhappiness comes from a similar moral struggle as Ray is? It is possible that with the dwarf character, McDonagh is drawing our attention to others that treat Bruges as another place for self redemption, in any form that may take.

In Bruges (2008) – source: Universal Studios

McDonagh’s films thus far have centered around those in a deeply personal crisis with the effect of others, some in their favor and others not. His characters might not typically rub off as likable or morally just, but this is how he has become so differentiated from others who focus in the farce/ dramedy sub-genre. Take in account his follow-up, 2012’s Seven Psychopaths, about a troubled screenwriter who gets tangled into his criminal friends schemes. Or 2017’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, the story of mother’s ability to grasp at anything she can to find her daughters killer in a broken system that comes across as void of hope.

All three are rich in the dark comedy, yet strike a tonal and thematic balance that is difficult to find anywhere else (especially with such varied locations to add to that). He is someone who believes in balance, despite our violence, loathing and mistakes, we can become better people with those that have faith in us. Tragedy that blends with humanity instead of conflicting is a rarity yet McDonagh does so with such ease, even though he doesn’t want to rely on conventional easiness for a narrative clutch.

In Bruges (2008) – source: Universal Studios

In Bruges never feels the need to trap itself down to one genre, and while that may seem like an issue to begin with, McDonagh manages to find his footing even while staying noncommittal to one tone throughout. It can be called a dark comedy but there is enough layering of dramatic sequences to classify it as something more. You can make an argument for the films merits as an action/thriller but people get shot so sparingly that it is used for developing character dynamic rather than pure entertainment. McDonagh strikes this otherwise difficult tonal balance to make a film that carefully constructs character with humor. A great example of this is (spoiler alert) when Ken kills himself for getting Ray’s attention about Harry coming to kill him. It isn’t funny that Ken threw himself off the tower, yet the joke is he offers him a mangled gun to defend himself against Harry. It shows that Ken is a good person at heart, he just so happens to kill people for a living, it’s even implied that he took up this line of work as a debt of gratitude to Harry. It is this meticulous character detail that makes them feel more authentic.

If In Bruges proves us anything, it’s that redemption and self-satisfaction can’t come with ease. Judgement comes within our self and our place, like the churches and bars of Bruges are closing in on Ray’s moral self. Unable to enjoy everyday activities or can’t take in mundane sightseeing as if it’s a punishment. On top of Ray’s enormous amount of guilt from the incident, it wouldn’t be outside the realm of possibility for him to be diagnosed with depression. It’s eclipsed by the childlike humor but is then integral to uncovering a whole new side of this already entertaining character.

In the end, he realizes he doesn’t want to die once he is shot by Harry, in a final moment of hope or change that there could maybe be redemption within himself. He is a man filled to the brim with deep, buried sadness, but maybe he tried to put others out of their misery so they wouldn’t feel what he was feeling.

THE VIRGIN SUICIDES: ‘Girls Are Just Women in Disguise’

We knew that the girls were really women in disguise, that they understood love, and even death, and that our job was merely to create the noise that seemed to fascinate them.

Sofia Coppola’s directorial debut, The Virgin Suicides floats like a vigilant ghost across dreamy suburban Michigan, eternalizing the despondency of female adolescence. Walk backward into 1974, soak in the leafy neighborhood and meet the five doomed Lisbon sisters. Hide behind the eyes of the lovesick pubescent boys haunting the streets, ceaselessly struggling to fathom how their math teacher produced such “beautiful creatures”.

Cecilia Lisbon (Hanna Hall) is the first to go. The opening montage sees her moon face framed between clouds of pink, amidst an attempted bathtub wrist-slashing. A Virgin Mary prayer card slips from her pale fingertips, as she’s scooped up by two paramedics. After a carousel of inkblot tests and sympathetic glances, she leaps from her bedroom window and impales herself on the garden fence.

ceciliaThe Virgin Suicides (1999) – Source: IMDb

Yet, life starts over when it gets crisp in the fall and the vividness of Cecilia’s memory fades with the leaves. The change in seasons also welcomes stud muffin, Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett). His cyanide smile can melt any girl into an inarticulate pool of endorphins, yet he only has eyes for the “stone fox”; Lux Lisbon (Kirsten Dunst). By the evening of the school dance, Lux has been seduced into submission. Her aloof façade has shattered into tiny fragments of insecurity, indicated by her inking Trip’s name onto her underwear in black Sharpie, with a love-heart dotting the ‘I’. At dusk on the football field, dizzy with peach schnapps and thirsty for blood, Trip takes Lux’s virginity – before pulling a disappearing act and leaving her to wake-up alone in the bruised grass.

luxThe Virgin Suicides (1999) – Source: IMDb

Amongst the kaleidoscope of themes in The Virgin Suicides, lies the epidemic of premature female adulthood, which remains a hot-topic twenty years later. Sofia Coppola artfully dissects the ramifications of society’s feverish tendency to throw girls to the wolves upon the discovery of the first drops of blood in their underwear.

The Male Gaze

The film itself is a tongue-in-cheek embodiment of the ‘male gaze’. The feminist theory, ‘male gaze’ coined by Laura Mulvey, refers to the phenomenon in the visual arts in which women are often positioned as sexual objects, in order to maximize male viewing pleasure.

boyThe Virgin Suicides (1999) – Source: IMDb

Coppola’s ironic use of fetishistic cinematography creates an icky viewing experience. The neighborhood boys stare at the Lisbon girls with open-mouthed adoration, like art aficionados in the Louvre. Unknowingly adding to the girls’ mosaic of psychological disturbance; whilst nurturing their own animalistic itches. Too young to truly understand the feeling in their groins, but old enough to recognize it swells when they catch a glimpse of an innocuous bra strap. On the other side of the continuum, lofty apathetic adults avert their eyes to the ubiquitous red-flags, such as Cecilia’s suicide, preferring to pat their pubescent sons’ heads rather than acknowledge the horrors blossoming in the Lisbon hothouse.

girlsThe Virgin Suicides (1999) – Source: IMDb

When the breathy whispers of budding sexuality condense in the warm air above the Lisbon’s picture book home, it hangs like a black smog. Their mother (Kathleen Turner) hysterically adds white cloth to the girls’ homecoming dresses until they resemble “four identical sacks”. While superficially her intentions appear pure, an innate manifestation of her motherly instincts, she inadvertently infects her daughters with her own parasitical shame and Catholic guilt. Subconsciously cementing the vicious cycle by imbuing her own fears into her daughters.

Trip must have seen his name tattooed into Lux’s underwear as he pushed her homecoming dress up to her waist, yet despite her unmistakable vulnerability, he disappears. Though, Trip isn’t a Machiavellian douche-bag. It isn’t malevolence that courses through his veins, but rather a dangerous blend of testosterone, alcohol and an ingrained refusal to see Lux as anything more than hot breath and perfect skin. He’s no big bad wolf, but he was likely once a scopophilic kid with a pair of binoculars, spying on girls and cultivating his own animal itch. Now fully-fledged, he’s bold enough to blow Lux’s delicate straw house to the ground.

You’ll see The Virgin Suicides through a prismatic lens: either rose-coloured nostalgia or the blue hue of identification.

Either way, it’ll sting.

It’s Time We Discuss the Genius of Sam Esmail

Sam Esmail is most notably known for his success from creating, directing, writing and producing the critically acclaimed show Mr. Robot from 2015-2019. Esmail is someone who should be on the top of everyone’s list of names to keep an eye on. I have noticed the opposite.

News sites treat him has a fairly large name when announcements of his projects are revealed. He has multiple awards nominations (and wins) for his work, and people who watch this work love what he does, yet outside of these spheres, it is quiet.

Esmail is doing incredible work in film and TV, and this is very clear in both Mr. Robot and his new show starring Julia Roberts, Homecoming. His style is present and recognizable in both, yet he is able to mold this style to perfectly fit the specific tone, characters and stories of each show. He uses every possible aspect of film-making to his advantage when building up the tone of a show or movie, and it works.

The Art of his Shots

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Martin Wallström in Mr. Robot – source: IMDb

Although his style is evident in his 2014 film Comet, it is not until Mr. Robot started gaining traction that more attention to his style was given. He deviates from the common rule of thirds, uses blank spaces in frames, and often does not center the subject in shots, among many other techniques. It is incredibly captivating to the eye. Even on re-watching the show countless times, I find myself not being able to look away from the screen. Each and every shot serves a purpose, and you can tell the amount of thought that goes into them.

Rami Malek in Mr. Robot – source: IMDB

Mr. Robot not only draws the viewer in as a character by having the main character, Elliot Alderson, speak to the camera directly, but also by engaging the audience with a series of Easter eggs (both in the show and around the internet), an ARG game, and a book. The Reddit fan base for Mr. Robot features some of the most engaging and intelligent discussions of a show I have ever seen, including people working alongside one another to solve the various (incredibly complex) puzzles that are woven into the show. Not only is it the perfect way to bring your audience closer to a story, but it’s also a genius PR move.

“I talk to you, an invisible friend. I’d ask if you’re normal, but you never talk back.”

– Elliot Alderson in Mr. Robot, season 2 episode 8.

In Homecoming, Esmail uses aspect ratio to his advantage by changing it depending on the time period it’s showing (present or future). It suits the show perfectly by throwing you off-balance, putting you in the perfect position to start questioning everything you are seeing. He continues to use his framing techniques from Mr. Robot, but is more subtle with it, instead focusing more on color to reflect tones and moods.

So Why the Lack of Hype?

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Carly Chaikin in Mr. Robot – Source: IMDB

Although I personally enjoyed Esmail’s film Comet, it flew a bit under the radar and was met with mixed reviews, so I would not expect people to recognize his name from this title. That being said though, his next credit was Mr. Robot, which was met with wide praise from critics, viewers, and awards shows. Since its premiere in 2015, It has received six Golden Globe nominations with two wins, two wins, nine Emmy nominations with two wins, and a slew of nominations and wins from other major awards shows. It has a huge following online (as I mentioned, the Reddit community for the show is vast, but is also prevalent on Twitter), but it’s not often I meet someone in person who has seen the show. I assume it is that people are turned off by the show being about hacking, but it is much more than that (truly). It has so much depth to the story and characters that you often forget it all started with a hack.

After even more success with Homecoming, which included a star-studded cast with Roberts, Bobby Cannavale and Sissy Spacek, I still am yet to see the praise for Esmail that he deserves. It also received its share of awards praise this year with three Golden Globe nominations and was even the most-watched title on Prime Video the month it was released (November 2018). People are clearly watching, but why does the discussion of his shows seem so quiet?

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Julia Roberts in Homecoming – source: IMDb

The Ingenuity of Esmail’s Writing

I could go on for days about Sam Esmail’s directorial style and how incredible it is, but I wanted to draw more attention to his writing. He goes against the grain and is constantly writing inventive episodes that keep his shows exciting and addictive. In the second season of Mr. Robot, there is an episode that has the entire first half in the style of an 80’s sitcom, featuring Alf and everything. How he managed to make this work seamlessly in a dark, dystopian drama is beyond me, but he did it, and he did it well. It was both hilarious, yet dark, and was a perfect mid-season pick me up and palette cleanser to prepare you for what was to come. 

Esmail also took the existing brilliant Homecoming podcast and turned it into something incredible on the screen. He took a story that was created for audio and made it into something visually stunning while weaving in multiple time periods into the main story-line.

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Stephan James and Julia Roberts on Homecoming – Source: IMDB

From dealing with everything from mental illness to capitalism to Islamophobia on Mr. Robot, writing a compelling romantic comedy that takes place over parallel universes in Comet, and creating a paranoid filled, character-driven thriller in Homecoming, Sam Esmail really can do it all.

If you’ve been hearing about Mr. Robot or Homecoming (or both!) and you have yet to watch them, take this as a sign to finally take the plunge!

Sam Esmail is currently in production of the fourth and final season of Mr. Robot. His upcoming projects include executive producing the second season of Homecoming, executive producing the USA anthology drama series Briarpatch,  creating, writing and directing a TV mini-series remake of Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis, and is slated to write and direct an upcoming Universal untitled Bermuda Triangle movie. 

Re-Examining John Boorman’s ZARDOZ: Misunderstood Sci-Fi or Psychedelic Nonsense?

No child should ever encounter the trailer for the 1974 sci-fi enigma Zardoz, but that’s exactly what happened to me. A flurry of kaleidoscopic images, piercing sound design and a booming voice repeatedly exclaiming “ZARDOZ” twisted my fragile little mind long before I ever knew who director John Boorman was. Perhaps if the eight-year old version of myself knew prior that this bizarre collection of images are courtesy of the man responsible for Excalibur and Exorcist II: The Heretic (i.e. the film in which James Earl Jones roars like a cheetah), I could have braced myself. After years of this bizarre three-minute trailer permeating my head, I worked up the courage to view Boorman’s madness in its entirety, and I found myself just as baffled if not more so.

Zardoz, while an entertaining 70s oddity, differed from its hyper-paced, madcap preview. Boorman’s vision is much more leisurely paced, spending a great deal of time pursuing a grab bag assortment of thematic elements. No one will dispute Zardoz’s cult classic status.  Some, however, have come to the film’s defense (notably High Rise director Ben Wheatley), imploring that, beyond its unhinged presentation of existential ideas, Zardoz has been greatly misrepresented in the pantheon of 70s sci-fi. As the film celebrates its 45th anniversary, I thought I’d revisit this kooky treasure trove, and determine whether or not Zardoz deserves a critical re-evaluation.

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Zardoz (1974) – source: 20th Century Fox

What is ZARDOZ?

In case the symbiotic pairing of hallucinatory sci-fi dystopia and the 1970s weren’t an indication that things were going to get weird, here enters Zardoz, a massive stone head that serves as the film’s pride and joy despite having about less than ten minutes of screen time. A landscape without leadership, Zardoz sporadically emerges from the clouds with pep talks about purifying the Earth with “the gift of the gun” (i.e. a prime future NRA spokesperson). “The gun is good. The penis is evil,” the booming voice of Zardoz shouts as if it’s rewriting the Ten Commandments with a blood-red crayon. And what good is such a higher power if he doesn’t end his bellicose preaching by vomiting an arsenal of rifles, shotguns and all the bullets any mindless 23rd Century executioner could ever want?

Sporting thigh-high leather boots, a red diaper cloth and twin bandoliers draped across his hairy chest,  post-Diamonds Are Forever Sean Connery gives the performance he’s yet to live down as Zed, a loyal Exterminator in the name of Zardoz. When Zed mysteriously wakes up inside the stone head, he’s transported to a clandestine environment called the Vortex, a heaven-like habitat that celebrates life rather than the onslaught of death in the Outlands within the protected confines of the Vortex live an elite group of immortal beings referred to as Eternals. Two Eternals, May (Sara Kestelman) and Consuella (Charlotte Rampling), conduct experiments on the seemingly primitive Zed, soon discovering that his presence invites the possibility of death, sex, and a likely chance of seeing Connery in a wedding dress. Welcome to Zardoz.  

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Zardoz (1974) – source: 20th Century Fox

Religion and Mortality

The prelude to Zardoz presents a disembodied head that refers to itself as Arthur Frayn (Niall Buggy), a futile suggestion on the part of 20th Century Fox to quell audience confusion. “In this tale, I am a fake god by occupation, and a magician by inclination…I am the Puppet-master,” says Frayn, admitting his self-aware involvement both as the man behind Zardoz and an instrument as an entertainer to us. He’s the man pulling the strings behind the scenes, but to what end?

It should come to no surprise that a scary rock face preaching to a choir of followers functions metaphorically as a religious deity. From what I’ve gathered, the immortal Frayn employs Zardoz as means of maintaining the outside world; a fake higher authority who keeps up appearances to keep things in check. In cracking the formula to immortality, the ostensibly atheist Eternals have killed the traditional notion of God. A man-made God reigns among the Brutals and Exterminators who have been led to kill in the name of a necromancer having way too much control. Meanwhile, inside the Vortex, the Eternals’ immortality is fueled by the Tabernacle, a manufactured source (visualized as a nightmare room of fun-house mirrors) that sustains their immortality. It also grants them with telepathic abilities because, why not at this point?

Consistent is the inconsistency of Zardoz upon defining the rules and motivations of each religious influence. The floating head serves one purpose until it doesn’t anymore. As Frayn ever so cunningly elaborates in the film’s finale, Zed’s habitation inside the Vortex was no accident but rather HIS plan all along! It’s easy. Select a brainwashed Exterminator, teach him how to read (THE WIZARD OF OZ), and plant doubt in his mind. From there, it’s all a matter of convincing Zed to dissent against Zardoz, enter the head, encroach the Vortex, go along with the experiments and cross your fingers that everything will fall into place, and he’ll bring about the death of immortality. My head hurts.

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Zardoz (1974) – source: 20th Century Fox

Class Hierarchies

On the outside, the Vortex is deceitfully regarded as a haven promised to those upon death. The only other passage inside is through Zardoz (or Frayn’s alternative solution to taking United Airlines). The Eternals are privileged, powerful beings who counteract the troubles on the outside by keeping it away from their protected habitat. There’s a compelling shot which sees the suffering Brutals mere inches from the prosperous garden at the edge of the Vortex. It provides a great insight into the Eternals’ indifference to outside plights. When you can live forever, and dress like Greek aristocrats, wouldn’t you?

Aging in the Vortex is no design flaw; it’s a punishment. Designated Renegades are exiled to the nether regions of the Vortex, obligated to spend the rest of their never-ending existence to a life of perpetual senility. Whereas these outcasts, despite their expulsion, party like there’s no tomorrow, another group of Vortex citizens aren’t as active. The Apathetics are a select group of catatonic Eternals that have become so withdrawn to the awe of their immortality they simply exist with zero desire (or impulse) to move, eat, sleep or respond, especially when Zed hilariously tosses one out of frustration.

Absent of thought and perspective, the people in the Outlands, otherwise referred to as Brutals, are slaughtered/defiled like mindless cattle. If they can’t work, they’re killed. If they kill, they’re chosen ones of Zardoz. This is one aspect of Zardoz that I find un-ironically interesting, even if doesn’t explore its structured hierarchy to its full potential. Implications only go so far when you’re working with such unbalanced material.

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Zardoz (1974) – source: 20th Century Fox

Sex or: Charlotte Rampling Teaches Sex Ed

The stimulation which causes erections is but an enigma to the impotent Eternals whose libido is all but absent. It’s Rampling’s Consuella that takes charge in assessing Zed’s sexual impulses. She even goes so far as to play erotic images in an attempt to, for lack of a better term, make Zed hard. Zed achieves that erection (this is presented much more awkwardly in the film) but only after glancing at her. It’s an awkward scene that plays like one long build-up to a punchline regarding Zed and Consuella, foreshadowing their fate in the film’s final moments. Take a guess.

The closest Zardoz comes to depicting the fever of sexual awakening in the Vortex is a laughably ridiculous scene in which a single drop of Zed’s glistening sweat incites the Apathetics to wake up, and form a massive orgy in the garden as if they’re under the influence of the drugs that more than likely inspired Zardoz to begin with. Imagine the millions Zed could procure if he bottled his hormone juice. The moment, however, in which Zardoz immediately kills anything meaningful it has to say in regard to human sexuality is when Sara Kestelman looks Connery dead in the eyes and, without a hint of irony, says (referring to every woman in the Vortex): “Inseminate us all, and we’ll teach you all we know.” Yikes.

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Zardoz (1974) – source: 20th Century Fox

Verdict – Bless Boorman’s Beautiful Mess

John Boorman is nothing, if not ambitious. Devised after his proposed adaptation of Lord of the Rings didn’t pan out, Zardoz shows that Boorman wasn’t ready to drop the idea of making his own fantasy adventure. He made it; that’s for sure. For all its many, many imperfections, Zardoz remains that risky gamble on an otherwise accomplished filmmaker (credits including Deliverance), and when I say risky I mean that, in a structure that regards non IP films produced by major film studios a risk, I could only imagine how a bizarro trip like Zardoz would even find distribution according to the current system, let alone funding.

Zardoz, at times, slogs under the weight of its own self-imposing importance, the feeling that what it’s about to say will speak volumes. It doesn’t. But Zardoz does justify its entertainment worth. It’s a cult classic for a reason, even if you’re spending half of the time either guffawing at the awkward delivery of Boorman’s convoluted dialogue, or admiring Anthony Pratt’s dazzlingly weird production design. I could study the Vortex’s glass pyramid chamber for days.

Zardoz is the type of nutzo sci-fi clutter that will make you go insane, should you even attempt to piece everything together in an effort to make it fit. If it can’t have one meaning, it’ll have many meanings. If one means nothing, then they all mean nothing. Sean Connery wore a red diaper. John Boorman owns my sanity, and I’m okay with that. Zardoz has spoken.

Jordan Peele Exposes the Monster in the Mirror With US

*POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD*

There’s few films this year more laden with expectations than Jordan Peele’s Us. Coming hot off of capturing lighting in a bottle with the brilliant horror-satire Get Out, Peele was given the impossible task of crafting something that lived up to the legacy of a debut which garnered him an Oscar and represented a new cultural zeitgeist.

Miraculously, Peele dispels any notion of a sophomore slump almost instantaneously with a scene we think we’ve seen countless times before: we follow young Adelaide (Madison Curry) into a house of mirrors, primed for any number of obvious jump scares or sight gags. What we get instead is a bone-chilling reminder of Peele’s aptitude for filling every corner of our minds with dread. The camera shows us only the girl’s terrified expression, eyes widening, as she’s greeted with the nightmare that drives one of the most thrilling horror films of the decade.

Lupita Nyong’o in Us (2019) – source: Universal Pictures

It’s a moment that immediately keys you into the fact that Peele’s new role as one of our most preeminent horror directors is no fluke. Armed with an idea very different from Get Out, but every bit as fascinating, Peele rises to the challenge of trying to match the power of that instant classic with a surprisingly hilarious, deeply unsettling look into the skeletons in America’s closet. This is a movie seeded in American paranoia and guilt: conspiracies about thousands of miles of tunnels beneath the country and a dark use of the infamous Hands Across America campaign are just a few examples. But it’s the central premise of the film where Peele really gets to shine, asking if the real enemy behind America’s (and the world’s) anxiety is ourselves.

Peele fast-forwards to Adelaide all grown up (Lupita Nyong’o), headed out on a vacation with her charming doofus of a husband Gabe (Winston Duke), and her two children Zora and Jason (Evan Alex and Shahadi Wright Joseph). As they settle in for a summer away hanging out with their privileged friends Josh (Tim Heidecker) and Kitty (Elisabeth Moss), it’s clear that Adelaide isn’t enjoying herself the way her family is. She’s back in Santa Cruz, home of the fun-house where she faced the fear that has continued to haunt her, and a series of increasingly curious coincidences is convincing her that the nightmare is rearing its ugly head once again.

Turns out her fears are correct, as a family donning red jumpsuits and armed with gold scissors soon arrives to spoil everyone’s fun. The twist is that this is no ordinary band of trespassers: they are “The Tethered”, exact duplicates of Adelaide and her family, bloodthirsty and eager to take the place of their lookalikes. The premise of evil doppelgängers is nothing new, but Peele takes it all to a new level with the implications of these clones’ beginnings.

There’s layers of subtext oozing underneath the home invasion thrills, bubbling underneath like a volcano of toxic waste waiting to erupt. It shrouds the film in a deliberately ambiguous air of supernatural vengeance, as if this nightmare is a predestined bit of punishment. In a jaw-dropping, deliciously complex exchange of dialogue, Gabe asks, “what the hell are you?” Adelaide’s twin answers with an unnerving croak: “We’re Americans.”

Us (2019) – source: Universal Pictures

To reveal too much about the The Tethered’s motivations or origins is to spoil the fun, but rest assured that Peele milks the premise to its limits and then some. On a technical level, it lets Peele prove he’s a horror master like no other, staging set pieces with a patient eye that rejects any notion of cheap scares. It never buys into easy shocks, instead mounting tension through good old-fashioned blocking and healthy dose of chilling acting to boot. It’s given some levity by the film’s sneakily hilarious moments of comic relief, with everything from an Alexa gag to the family’s terrified banter landing with confidence.

It all works because there’s no grandstanding in the way Peele directs the camera, letting the performances, some striking cinematography from It Follows alum Mike Gioulakis, and Michael Abels’s chilling score do the talking for him. Everything Peele wants out of this pretty much clicks perfectly: the surprising bits of humor, the look-through-your-hands moments of terror, the masterful imagery on display. It’s all because he exudes restraint in a way few other directors in this genre manage to emulate, letting the pieces he’s brought together play out on their own accord.

While Peele’s work behind the camera is marvelous, the performances are what really steal the show here, particularly in the case of Nyong’o. Since winning an Oscar for in her earth-shattering turn in 12 Years A Slave, she’s been largely wasted in thankless supporting roles. Now she gets not only one, but two meaty roles to sink her teeth into, and she tackles each with aplomb. She turns Adelaide into a fierce, protective, and twitchy hero whose determination is matched only by her counterpart, who speaks with a spine-tingling hoarse tone and moves like a puppet from hell. It’s an instantly iconic performance, the kind of bravura horror role that catapulted Toni Collette’s Hereditary turn into the stratosphere last year.

When the film turns into a wild exposition dump in its final act, it’s clear this is a script that’s not quite as polished as Get Out. It’s asking the audience to do a lot of mental gymnastics to keep the whole thing afloat and some of the themes feel slightly under-baked, but the film is otherwise so transcendent that’s it’s easy to let it be a little bit messy. Despite collapsing a bit under scrutiny, this is still a deeply intelligent bit of horror artistry. It’s a haunted, vital work more concerned with notions of control and class than it initially lets on, standing out as the sort of film that will probably require multiple viewings to really come together. With a film this thrilling, you shouldn’t consider that a chore.

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