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Review: Jordan Peele’s “Us”

Review: Jordan Peele’s “Us”

“Us” poster. Universal Pictures.

In 1986, Ken Kragen devised Hands Across America, a charity event that would bring Americans together – quite literally – to battle homelessness and hunger by creating a chain of handholding citizens across the entire continental United States. It was would be an audacious and spectacular symbol of American unity, highlighting the country’s determination to better our world. Each participant would donate ten dollars to reserve a spot in the chain. Those individual contributions, combined with the hefty sponsorship of entities such as Coca-Cola, Prince, and American Express, would net Hands Across America fifty-million dollars to be spread across numerous local charities.

A group of Hands Across America participants in Bremen, Indiana. Image from http://historicbremen.com/?attachment_id=4826.

The ambitious goal of the gesture was not quite met. Despite roughly seven-million participants ­– including the likes of Pete Rose, Kenny Rogers, Lilly Tomlin, and then-President of the United States/Hater of the Poor Ronald Reagan – the chain contained large gaps across Middle-America farms and southwestern deserts. Hands Across America also failed to meet its monetary goal, only netting fifteen-million dollars due to its organization costing seventeen-million. Critics refer to the event as a “giant feel good party” whose symbolism proved trite. After making a newsworthy sign of solidarity in aiding the nation’s underprivileged and overlooked, most Americans returned to their homes with no more mind to the plights of the poor than they had before the event.

Oddly enough, Hands Across America serves as a symbolic center of the plot to Jordan Peele’s Us. The film opens with a prologue set in 1986, showing a young girl named Adelaide (Madison Curry) watching a commercial for the event on her television. Later that night, her family goes to an amusement park on the beach of Santa Cruz. This prologue establishes Peele’s skill as a horror filmmaker. An amusement park is rife territory for cheap jump scares galore, but Peele embellishes the scene with none of those lazy shocks. Rather, through emphasizing the radiant lights of the park and constructing low-angle shots from the Adelaide’s point-of-view, Peele turns the expansive environment of cheerful rides and attractions into a claustrophobic hellscape. As the young girl wonders away from her parents and into a mirror-maze far on the edges of the park, unease has been established in the viewer simply through camera work alone. Once Adelaide gets lost in the mirror-maze, she encounters a being whose presence haunts the young girl for the rest of her life.

The rest of the movie follows adult Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) and her family on their summer vacation. Gabe Wilson (Winston Duke), the father of the family, is a kooky buffoon obsessed with his mildly functional boat  and embarrassing his sassy teenage daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph). While Gabe and Zora share a certain charisma, Adelaide and her young son Jason (Evan Alex) are much more reserved and quiet. Peele falls back on his years of comedy experience to detail the relationship between the family. Gabe goofily dabs in celebration as the family arrives at the family’s lake-house, while Jason jumps out of bathroom drawers to spook his older sister.

The Wilson family (excluding Zora) looking at the strangers outside their door.

The family takes a trip to the same Santa Cruz speech where Adelaide had her horrific childhood encounter. Adelaide senses something is awry, but no evidence is born until later that night a mysterious family appears at the doorstep of the Wilsons’ home. The family are doppelgangers of the Wilsons – they call themselves “the Tethered” –, intent on stealing the Wilsons’ lives from them. The film becomes a  home invasion story as the Wilsons’ fend off their respective doubles.

More is learned about the Tethereds’ origin as the film progresses. In the first scene the Wilsons and the Tethered share, Adelaide asks her double Red who they are. “We’re Americans,” Red replies through her viciously croaky gate. Peele continues this thread to create a sort of allegory for America’s mistreatment of the poor. The Tethered resemble the population Hands of America claimed to help but ultimately left neglected. In this way Us functions as a sort of revenge tale for the nation’s abused.

Peele’s social commentary, though, is inconsistent throughout the film’s runtime. There are moments as heavy handed as the Red claiming their American heritage, and other instances far more opaque. A large emphasis of the film in its early stages is a materialistic war between Gabe and his lake-house neighbor Josh (Tim Heidecker), who always gets nicer boats or newer cars than Gabe. It is a classic suburban sitcom struggle. While a connection can be made between the men’s materialism and the trials of the Tethered, Peele loses sight of the dichotomy of the two groups so that the movie doesn’t ever truly allow itself to be about the classism that it presents. Challenging cinema need not be wholly transparent. However, as the movie gets bogged down in its own plot mechanics – namely who the Tethered are and what havoc they plan to wreak – it loses sight of its ultimate goal.

The Tethered family.

With that said, it is refreshing in today’s franchise laden climate to see a blockbuster as heady as Us is; an aspiring but sloppy film is much preferable to a competent but soulless entry in, say, the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And while Us struggles with thematic clarity, it thrives in its scares. Environments generally considered to be safe, such as gorgeous lake-house complexes inhabited by upper-middle class folks, are permeated with dread. While all of the cast members are successful as their respective doubles, Nyong’o especially sinks her teeth into the dual role of Adelaide and Red. Red is a controlling matriarch while Adelaide is a cool presence among the family, giving the Wilsons a calm stability. The scenes in which Nyonog’o’s characters face off against one another are gut wrenching in their suspense. Peele’s visual skill only heightens the war between the two families as we watch the two-hour brawl.

It can be hard to determine whether a work of art as layered as Us is truly a well-crafted puzzle or an ambitious but hasty mess. The distinction between the two in many cases is whether all of the pieces are present for viewers to decipher the artist’s intent. In Us, Peele seems to have lost some of his pieces while developing the rules of the film’s universe. But that’s okay. Us is still an incredibly well-staged horror film that will leave audiences shuddering. I can forgive the film’s thematic faults on the basis of its strength as a home invasion film that feels original in climate where cheap horror movies come out once a day.


The Funkhouser Situation E53: Cloudy Macchiato

Back by popular demand, Chris Tomlin and Lee Cruse bring you a piping hot new edition of The Funkhouser Situation.  In episode 53 of KSR’s pop culture podcast, Chris and Lee talk about…

—  Lee shares his concerns about colonoscopy preparation.

Captain Marvel‘s going to be awesome.

— Controversy surrounding the Leaving Neverland documentary.

— A Melissa McCarthy movie that had plenty of LOL moments.

— Critiquing a list of the Top 100 animated series of all time.

— A brilliant idea for Netflix.

You can easily listen on the KSR App, available on iTunes and Google Play. Streaming online is simple through Pod Paradise. You can also get it directly to your phone by subscribing to The Funkhouser Situation podcast feed on iTunes or via Android’s Podcast Addict app.

Today’s episode is brought to you by Jake’s Cigar Bar. 


Four Movies Better Than the Book They’re Based On

Four Movies Better Than the Book They’re Based On

I was scrolling through my Facebook feed the other day – perusing article headlines and racist family members’ complaints about the liberal hellscape in which we reside – when I saw an odd image posted by my local library. A sliver of an iceberg with the words “A Film” by its side barely pierced through the ocean. The submerged portion of the iceberg, labeled with the words “A Book,” swam into the deep as an elaborate and seemingly never-ending structure.

The argument is apparent: books are deeper in substance than films. The moment a film adaptation of a novel is conceived, fans of the novel decry in unison, “The movies never get it right! Books will always be better!” Even if book readers are excited to see their favorite characters on the big screen, they still hold prejudiced views about film adaptations at large.

A few explanations have been given to me as to why many people prefer a book to a movie. By virtue of taking more time to engage with, books often seem to be deeper in weight than movies do. Readers also develop very specific visions for what the book should look like. A prose description of a tall white man with flowing, brown curly hair will conjure a different mental iteration in every reader. If a reader’s imagining of this character does not look exactly like the actor cast in the role, that can inhibit reader’s engagement with the film. Readers want to see their interpretation of the novel, not somebody else’s.

I respectfully disagree. Films, despite their brevity, can be just as complex and layered as a six-hundred page opus. Often – especially in recent years with the recent onslaught of dystopian young adult novel adaptations (The Hunger Games series, the Divergent series, The Maze Runner series, to name a few) – films fail to do justice to their source material. Just as often, though, films improve on the novel from which they were birthed. In the internet’s favorite listical form, I present triumphs of the cinematic form.

Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in “Gone Girl” (2014)

David Fincher’s Gone Girl (2014)
Based on the novel by Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl centers on the disappearance of Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike). As the community gathers together in a hunt for Amy, her husband Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck in his best performance) seems suspiciously unaffected by Amy’s absence. He smiles in media interviews and gives conflicting stories to the authorities in an attempt to put on a Midwestern “I’m good! How are you?” face – not an appropriate face in the wake of your wife’s missing status. What follows is a mystery seeking to uncover the potential innocence or guilt of Nick Dunne.

Flynn’s novel is a very well-crafted thriller. It stands out from the crime stories of James Patterson and his ilk by asking very serious questions, primarily about the media’s outsized role in popularizing murder cases. Her writing plows through the story and its many twists in a very slick manner, crafting a smooth web for readers to latch onto. However, Fincher pushes the promise of Flynn’s work to its fullest potential by turning the story from a polished mystery to a slimy, pulpy mess. One can only assume Fincher based his color palette on the various types of sediment procured from his cat’s litter box; light browns and grays permeate every surface. Affleck and Pike are the two most unfaithful, unreliable protagonists imaginable. No place is clean, and no person is innocent. Fincher takes the slippery nature of the media present in the book and adds it to every component of the film, creating a movie that pushes every character into a trunk of immorality that Flynn only hints at in her novel.

Alex (Malcolm McDowell) and his droogs in Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” (1971)

Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Anthony Burgess’s novel of the same name is one of my favorite books. A brisk 200 page read, Burgess – similarly to Flynn’s Gone Girl – writes a story in which the characters are bad but institution are worse. Our humble narrator Alex recounts his lifestyle of gang fights, sexual assault, and murder with utter glee. He soon is arrested for the murder of an old woman and is subjected to a new government brainwashing technique that claims tested individuals will be cure from all evil. Burgess tackles issues of free will: is it better to be evil and autonomous or moral and mindless?

Kubrick’s film follows the story essentially verbatim, but pushes it over the edge by creating a definitive artistic style. A Clockwork Orange’s costumes, production design, and cinematography are ingrained in our pop culture lexicon. The bubbly statues and hyper-sexual decorations of the unnamed England town are alluring and alarming. Malcolm McDowell’s performance as Alex fits that same bill; McDowell and Kubrick keep Alex at close enough proximity to the audience for us to identify with him but far away enough to keep from implicating us in his deviousness. McDowell embellishes Alex with a wry humor and boyish charm that pull viewers uncomfortably close to full-on sympathy, especially in the face of government experimentation.

The novel’s last chapter turns this story into an odd faith tale, quickly redeeming Alex from his previous misdoings. Kubrick nixed this last chapter and ends the film with Alex remaining as impure and hostile as he was in the beginning; the moral grayness of the movie remains unchanged by the film’s ending whereas it is washed away by the book’s.

Gus (Ansel Elgort) and Hazel (Shailene Woodley), waxing poetic on Chekhov or some crap. Josh Boone’s “The Fault In Our Stars” (2014).

Josh Boone’s The Fault in Our Stars (2014)
In 2014, emotionally closeted frat bros were dragged en masse to the theaters by their girlfriends to see the film adaptation of John Green’s explosive teen romance The Fault In Our Stars. The story follows Hazel (Shailene Woodley) and Gus (Ansel Elgort), two wicked smart teenagers who exchange thinking-man’s jokes back and forth as their romance develops. The wrench in their love story is that they are both riddled with cancer. Their health worsens as their romance blooms, and both wonder how much a doomed relationship is worth pursuing.

Despite readers’ belief that brevity is the curse of film adaptations, the brevity of the Josh Boone’s adaptation is exactly what puts it above the book. Hazel and Gus are exhaustingly pretentious. Gus continually holds an unlit cigarette in his mouth; it’s a metaphor, you see, because he has the power to light it and destroy his lungs, but he chooses not to. Imagine spending 300-plus pages dealing with two characters who genuinely think that horseshit is meaningful. It makes me questions why humanity reproduces if such ostentatious children are a possibility. Two hours, on the other hand, is much more manageable, especially since Woodley and Elgort deliver incredibly charming performances that mostly make up for the characters’ tiresome #deep meditations on life.

Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
One commonality that the films on the list share so far is the strength of their performers; the actors are able to add dynamism to characters that can often be lost on the page. No film achieves successful characterization more than Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs. Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is trying to find the serial killer known as Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine). With little assistance from her FBI superiors, Starling looks to famed murderer Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) for assistance in solving the case.

Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) and Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991).

Demme’s direction is incredible. His shots are claustrophobic, filling the screen with the character’s fearful faces or the nauseating corpses found along the way. The main draw of the film, though, is Hopkins’s Hannibal Lecter. Even though he is only on screen for ten-ish minutes of the film’s two-hour runtime, we think of it as his movie. Lecter is as charismatic as he is repulsive; he paints wondrous portraits as he devours a man’s intestines with glee. Foster’s performance as Agent Starling, while often overlooked, is equally as compelling. Starling’s drive to persevere in an environment that deems women too fickle to solve a murder case carries us through the horror of Buffalo Bill’s crimes. Whereas most true crime media today romanticizes murder, Starling forces us to confront the monsters who so flippantly take life. Thomas Harris’s novel is unflinching in its portrayal of homicide, but Foster and Hopkins demand that we see them through to the end of this cat-and-mouse journey, however painful it may be.

Honorable Mentions
Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-03): I have never fallen asleep during the movies, and I have never stayed awake for more than twenty pages of Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring.

Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980): The film and novel are so vastly different that it is not truly fair to compare the two. But while we’re at it, Stephen King’s novel – though it is a thoughtful and chilling rumination on the perils of alcoholism – does not feature a scene where a man in a teddy bear suit is caught in bed with a business person, thus making the novel immediately inferior.


The Funkhouser Situation E52: Oscars Debriefing

With the Oscars officially in the books, your favorite KSR pop culture duo is back for another edition of The Funkhouser Situation.

In episode 52 of the podcast, Chris Tomlin and Lee Cruse catch you up on everything you need to know about the world of entertainment, including topics such as…

  • The Oscars. Did we miss not having a host?
  • They want to like Spike Lee…
  • Their take on the Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper performance
  • A Madonna and Lady Gaga comparison
  • Lee highly recommends Fighting with My Family
  • Chris recommends The Lego Movie 2
  • It is harder to do comedies than dramas
  • Lee gives us a not so exciting update on The Masked Singer finale. The changes they would make for season 2.
  • Some Rami Malek news in our Hot Goss segment

You can easily listen on the KSR App, available on iTunes and Google Play. Streaming online is simple through Pod Paradise. You can also get it directly to your phone by subscribing to The Funkhouser Situation podcast feed on iTunes or via Android’s Podcast Addict app.

Today’s episode is brought to you by Jake’s Cigar Bar. 


The Streaming Wars are Upon Us: Will Netflix be Dethroned?

The Streaming Wars are Upon Us: Will Netflix be Dethroned?

 

Photo from Consider the Consumer (https://considertheconsumer.com/consumer-news/new-streaming-services)

Legend has it that when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Isoroku Yamamoto said they had “awakened a sleeping dragon” in the United States. In 2007, Netflix waged a similar attack on television networks and Hollywood studio executives by launching its now ubiquitous streaming platform. In so doing, they appear not to have awaken a sleeping dragon, but a rabble of befuddled salamanders who over a decade later have just ascertained the presence of a threat.

Netflix has housed a plethora of film and television from a multitude of studios and networks. That is the base appeal: the television people formerly had to either watch live – where oftentimes shows overlap, leaving one to pick favorites – or buy DVDs of (ugh) are instead all online for a nominal fee. Movies that one missed in theaters but may not want to bother renting individually are clustered together. The vast collection that Netflix and its ilk (namely Hulu and Amazon Prime) hold have made media consumption easier and more widespread. People are consuming more content now than ever before.

The streaming model has thrown traditional television and film into a fluster. With a growing number of people cutting cable subscriptions to instead feed off streaming , and fewer people going to see non-Avengers fare in theaters, Hollywood is spiraling into madness.

Television has tried to bring viewers back into its arms through a number of varied and middling methods. One such is the “double-screen” experience. As an episode of say, Breaking Bad, airs live, you can simultaneously watch behind the scene footage and episode analyses about the episode. Many networks also keep the ten most recent episodes of their shows on their respective mobile apps, so people who missed the first three episodes of Riverdale season three can catch up before episode four airs. Of course, accessing the episodes often requires one to login through their cable provider.

The primary problem with these tactics is that networks are trying to bring viewers to them. The days of crowding around a T.V. at a specific day and time are rapidly disappearing. The number of cable cutters grew to roughly 30 million people in 2018, a 32.8% growth from 2017. Audiences are going, of course, to Netflix and the like. The gap between Netflix viewers and traditional-cable viewers is shrinking: approximately 147 million people view Netflix once a month, compared to the approx. 187 million people that will watch traditional cable. Surely there is a ton of overlap between cable watchers and streamers. But there is a shift taking place, and the eyes are leaving cable and heading to streaming services. (All data from Variety’s piece “Cord-Cutting Keeps Churning: U.S. Pay-TV Cancelers to Hit 33 Million in 2018.”)

Hollywood executives may not have accepted their fate yet, but they are now changing their war strategy. Rather than bringing viewers to television, they will bring television to the viewers through their own streaming services.

CBS All Access has been the first broadcaster to take the leap into streaming. CBS’s platform hosts their traditional television titles (NCIS, The Good Fight, The Big Bang Theory, Young Sheldon, Sheldon Buys a Car Wash, Sheldon: Pig in the City, Shel-do or Sheldon’t, etc.) while also launching their own original, online content in the form of Star Trek: Discovery and Jordan Peele’s upcoming The Twilight Zone reboot. While streaming services are cagey about releasing their viewership numbers, CBS-Interactive President Marc DeBevoise has said CBS All Access has acquired roughly five-million subscribers since its 2017 launch. (It should be noted CBS All Access launched in 2014 as a place to catch up on CBS shows, but did not begin creating new content and cementing itself as a serious streaming platform until 2017.)

Photo from The Tide (https://thermtide.com/5774/popular/streaming-services-movie-studios-fight-future-film/)

CBS All Access is nowhere near a serious competitor with Netflix, but five-million is a strong place to be at for a single-channel subscription. Enough so that NBC-Universal has announced they will begin their own streaming service in 2020. The platform will be free to current cable subscribers, and available to cable cutters for $12 a month. NBC-Universal owns rights to The Office and the inexplicably successful Jurassic World franchise, among many other notable properties (30 Rock, The Good Place, Brooklyn Nine-Nine).  On top of NBC-Universal, Warner Bros. and Disney are also throwing their hats in the ring with their own streaming platforms. Even YouTube has YouTube Red, which launches its own original projects. There will soon be as many streaming services as there are shows to watch.

The question is what will happen to the studio-owned shows and movies currently streaming on Netflix? The Office is among Netflix’s most viewed shows, and they have exclusive streaming rights until 2020. NBC claims it will license some shows to other services while retaining exclusive rights to others. Will they gamble and pull their mockumentary juggernaut from Netflix in hopes that it will boost NBC-Universal subscriptions?

It is highly unlikely that CBS, Warner Media, and NBC-Universal will pull all of their hits from Netflix and Hulu. But it is not unlikely that they may hoard their monstrous hits – a la Offices’ and NCIS’s and Lego Movie‘s – to boost their own rates, especially since Disney plans to do exactly that. In late 2019, Disney will launch a service (to be christened Disney+) for its massive hoards of content  while pulling all of its properties from other platforms, making Disney+ the only place to see Disney joints.

Disney+ will make 5.6 trillion dollars every blessed week. It will be a landmark moment in the streaming wars. Star Wars. Pixar. Marvel. Hannah Montana. Snow Dogs. All of these entities will be available and watched incessantly, as Disney has survived the 21st century being the only studio with a recognizable brand. Audiences know what to expect from Disney, and they will always throw their wallets at the company upon request.

No other studio has branding like Disney. I can tell you that M. Night Shyamalan’s triumphant Glass was produced by Blumhouse Pictures and distributed by Universal. I am also a madman. The average moviegoer knows that Marvel and Star Wars are Disney, and that is likely the extent of their studio knowledge. Nobody cares who made what. They just want to watch things.

The gravest mistake studios and networks could make is assuming people will pay for forty-five streaming services divided by studio. CBS All Access has done well, but it was also the first of its kind. When NBC-Universal, Warner Bros., Lionsgate, and Disney throw their own services out into the world – on top of the currently existing streaming services –, consumers will have to make choices. Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime already have the built-in base. Disney is an instantly recognizable brand. There will be zero people who think, “You know what? NBC churns out great content consistently. I am buying all in on this NBC package!”

In the event networks and studios pull away from Netflix and Hulu, the ability to watch television will be hyper-segmented just as the days of cable were. Audiences will get angry (people already suffer the inconvenience of having shows and movies disappear from Netflix). They will protest. Shots will be fired and churches will be burned. But then they will soon decide what the most comprehensive platform is. They will gravitate to the platform or two where they have the largest breadth of options. If all studios leave Netflix, it could very well die in its tracks as people move away.

Odds are, Disney+ will be the lead in this field; of the top ten box office hits of 2018, five are owned by Disney. And with their acquisition of 20th Century Fox, the titles under their reign grows exponentially.

The only other platform that stands a chance is Amazon Prime. Prime benefits from granting access to all of Amazon’s services: films, product shipping, discounted prices, etc. Its numbers will not decrease too drastically, as Prime is not solely defined by streaming.

The added bonus is that through Amazon’s platform, you can access other channels. One can subscribe to HBOGo and watch the shows that come with it on their Amazon app. CBS All Access partnered with Amazon and saw a significant bump in subscribers, according to CBS CEO Les Moonves. The best move studios could make is partnering with Amazon in like manner. Decreasing the amount of apps people have to use is the way to viewers’ hearts.

Much of this is hypothetical. Perhaps studios will be smart enough to know that the fewer paths audiences need to traverse to view Parks and Recreation, the better. But maybe they will be greedy. Maybe in ten years we will have a hard time keeping the notebook of friends’ usernames and passwords to twenty different services straight. Perhaps we will go to turn on S*H*E*L*D*O*N and be dismayed by the fact that everyone who knows Noah Day also has his CBS All Access password, and too many of them are watching Sheldon’s Anatomy across different devices. The dark days are coming. Climate change and nuclear escalation be damned; what matters is my access to content.