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Parasite infects American cinema with its brilliance

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Man, the new movie by the guy who directed Snowpiercer is really picking up steam!

…get it? Picking up steam? Because it’s from the same director who did Snowpiercer? The movie about the train that never stops? Get it? 

Ah, never mind…

If I had to guess, I’d say that Parasite is a very different kind of movie than what most ‘Murican audiences will be used to from Bong Joon-ho. While he’s done drama before – Barking Dogs Never Bite and Mother – over here, his most popular films are his genre pieces. Films like The Host, his take on Godzilla, Okja, which is more fantasy than anything, or the aforementioned Snowpiercer, which is all about a magical train that goes around and around the world, forever and ever…suffice it to say, I can easily imagine a scenario where someone goes into a movie called Parasite, knowing it’s by the guy who made all those films, expecting another dip into sci-fi and horror, and getting what appears to be a straight-up drama instead. There are parasites in this movie…but they’re all very human.

Parasite has to do with a downtrodden, out-of-work family of four. We see in the opening scene that they in such squalor that, when a fumigation crew starts dusting the street outside, they decide to leave the window open to get rid of their roach problem. For free! Things take an interesting turn, however, when a friend of Ki-woo – the son in the family – asks him to fill in as a tutor to the daughter of a rich family. Ki-woo obliges, but soon into his first day he senses an opening for his sister, Ki-jeong, to join him as an art tutor for the rich son. Never mind that she doesn’t know the first thing about art, and doesn’t have any credentials; nothing a bit of light forgery can’t fix. Once she’s there, though, she starts looking for positions for her parents. The other jobs around the household are already taken by other people, but if something were to happen to them…

Doesn’t sound much like Snowpiercer, does it? But make no mistake; Parasite comes from the same mind. For one thing, despite all appearances, it’s very fluid, genre-wise. It defies simple characterization, which I always like (I’m generally of the opinion that genre restrictions are stupid). It begins as a satire, before hardening into straight drama, then back into comedy, before elements of horror start to creep in, and then…I’d better not say. But Bong Joon-ho is always in complete control; I never felt that he was just throwing whatever he wanted at the wall, and seeing what stuck. There was a purpose to the tonal shifts, and the end result was a film experience that I couldn’t predict the end of, or even the next scene of.

But the main clue that this is a Bong Joon-ho picture is the recurring theme of class warfare. I’m bringing up Snowpiercer a lot in this review, and there’s a reason for that, beyond the fact that I love it. Snowpiercer isn’t just a movie about a train endlessly circling a desolate, frozen earth; it’s a movie about the way the train divides its passengers into different cars based on their wealth and social status, and the eventual armed revolution by the have-nots against the haves. 

Parasite isn’t as fantastical as Snowpiercer, or even Okja, but it absolutely deals with the same themes. Weirdly, Parasite serves as a kind of spiritual relative to Jordan Peele’s Us from earlier this year. They’re both comedy-drama-horror hybrids that start out as one thing, before slowly transitioning into a parable about the lengths the disenfranchised will go, not only to survive, but to get back what they think they’re owed. There’s something almost supernatural about the way the family systematically attaches themselves to the rich family; watching them at work, they almost could be seen as the tethered. 

It works, though, for two main reasons. The first, it’s never moralistic, or heavy-handed. The themes are right there, but you do have to work for them. The social satire of the movie mostly comes up through contrast; for instance, when there’s a downpour about midway through the movie, the poor family (I refer to them as such because we never get any last names) has to worry about their little hovel flooding. The rich family, by contrast, spend the whole day post-flood commenting on how lovely their wet grass looks, which irritates the poor family to no end. 

The second reason is much simpler; it’s just wildly entertaining. There are sequences so brilliantly put together, the audience I saw this with was simultaneously screaming and in stitches. This is a prime example of a film that deals with heady subjects dead on, while still maintaining a high entertainment value.

Harriet Tubman gets an origin story worthy of a superhero, but not a real person

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Though the pendulum has been swinging for some time now, historical biopics about black women are rare. It must be said, though, that this one’s been coming for a while now. The story of Harriet Tubman – probably the most legendary “conductor” on the Underground railroad – is one that practically screams out for the silver screen treatment. A woman born into slavery, Tubman – born Araminta “Minty” Ross – managed to escape her bondage, traveling over a hundred miles to Philidelphia, and then more or less immediately turned right around, heading back into enemy territory to liberate as many slaves as possible.

I’ll say this; if you’re planning on seeing Harriet just to escape the recent deluge of comic book adaptations, save your money. Harriet goes out of its way to take this extraordinary, real-life hero, and strip her of every possible human frailty, until eventually turning her into a literal superhero. 

The first scene of the film begins this two-hour long lionization of Tubman. We see her as a young woman, still enslaved, in the throes of one of her “spells,” a kind of trance-like state she frequently enters throughout the movie, one which apparently allows her to see memories from the past and visions of the future. Tubman, a deeply religious woman, is convinced that the spells are caused by divine intervention, and for all intents and purposes the film agrees with her. What else are we to make of the scene where, when escaping through the woods with most of her family in tow, she enters a trance, and then somehow intuits that the path they’re on will lead them into a trap?

The film continues in this fashion, never passing up an opportunity to raise Tubman up on the highest of pedestals. The obvious question here is, so what? What’s the problem? If ever there was a historical figure that deserves lionization in the extreme, shouldn’t it be Harriet Tubman? 

My issues with Harriet aren’t so much that it plays up the heroic nature of her actions – a seemingly impossible task that the film somehow accomplishes anyway – but more that it systematically removes every single source of hardship from her life. Tubman never seems to encounter any real hardship, or at least any kind of hardship that poses any kind of an obstacle for her. The film pays lip service to the horrors of slavery, familial abandonment, and the perils of long travel, without immersing us in either. As such, it took what is to my mind a truly breathtaking real-life experience, and made it honestly pretty boring. Why should I care what happens to this woman when she’s never presented as being in any danger at any point in time?

This is a very poorly paced film. It’s just over two hours long, but it still feels improbably rushed, almost like it’s missing several reels. The editor, Wyatt Smiths, pieces Harriet together in a way that seems to actively thwart investment; we’re never in any one location for long enough to get invested, either in the place or the characters that occupy it. As such, the world of Harriet never comes to life in a satisfying way. I’ll say this; it never feels like a set, at least in terms of its visuals. Cinematographer John Toll has a knack for these kinds of sweeping visuals, having previously shot The Last Samurai and The Thin Red Line. The scene in which Harriet literally jumps over the Maryland state line to freedom, the sun shining down on her in a Heavenly aura, is appropriately awe-inspiring.

But while the thing looks grand, it never feels grand. All the pretty visuals in the world don’t mean jack if you’re not able to shoot them in an appropriately epic way. And it must be said that Harriet is directed in a way that feels unfortunately flat and uninspired. Cynthia Erivo is giving a good performance here, one that might have been a great performance if the film had just let it breathe a little before rushing off to the next thing.

That’s honestly my big takeaway from this film; a wealth of potential, wasted by the film’s insistence on being as crushingly conventional as possible. There’s a great life story here, one that absolutely deserves to be told on the big screen. But when you saddle the film with an uninspired script, a blandly repetitive score, and an almost pathological aversion to any actual tension, you end up wasting that potential.

Doctor Sleep damn near put me to sleep

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It’s almost hard to believe that The Shining was only Stephen King’s third book. He wrote it in the throes of alcoholism, in part as a way to purge his darkest demons. A horror story about an alcoholic writer who is trapped with his family in a snowed-in hotel, and slowly overtaken by the malicious forces within its halls, King has described the novel as a “confession” of sorts, a way to come to terms with the real anger he occasionally felt towards his children. You can imagine his frustration, then, when Stanley Kubrick chose to jettison most of the alcoholic undertones – as well as damn near all the relatability of the alcoholic writer – in favor of making a more general parable about abuse.

King fucking HATES the Kubrick Shining, to an almost legendary extent. He’s made clear that he resents the fact that Kubrick took the main character, Jack Torrance – a twisted self-insert if ever there was one – and turned him from a flawed, but ultimately well-meaning family man into a psychotic murderer who seems perfectly willing and able to kill his whole family without any ghostly influence. Famously, he went so far as to commission an entire made-for-TV miniseries, just so that he could get the “true” version of his story onto a screen. This wasn’t enough, though, and in 2013 he wrote a whole-ass sequel to his book, one which went out of its way to ignore all the changes Kubrick made to the story in favor of following up on the book’s story threads.

I read Doctor Sleep pretty soon after it came out. It’s…not great, and I say this as a fan. King’s prose is evocative as always, and there are moments of real power here and there (the segment at the beginning where we see grown-up Danny Torrance hitting rock-bottom is powerful for how personal it is). But the thing is dramatically structureless, a victim of King’s late-career inability to plan his stories out properly. Sometimes, this never-plan-ahead strategy results in free-flowing brilliance. This was not one of those times. Doctor Sleep was a book full of things that just kind of happened, one after the other, until the end, at which point instead of climaxing they just sort of petered out. 

So I was dubious about the efficacy of a film adaptation of the novel, even before director Mike Flannigan revealed that he would be marrying his vision to Kubrick’s; in effect, that he’d be making a sequel to the book AND the film of The Shining. This was a dubious prospect at best, considering how many differences exist between the two. Even putting aside the more fundamental issue of Jack Torrance, there are a number of surface-level plot discrepancies that differentiate the adaptations; the book has hedge animals that come to life and try to kill you, the movie has a massive hedge maze. Kindly old cook Dick Halloran dies in the film adaptation, whereas he makes it in the book. And – and this is a pretty big one – the Overlook Hotel completely burns down in the climax of the novel, whereas the end of the movie sees it standing tall.

The fact is, The Shining is not the type of film you make a sequel to. It’s completely self-contained, as closed off from the outside world as the poor, doomed Torrance family. As directed by Kubrick, it’s a largely plot-free nightmare of a film, concerned mainly with the frighteningly unique experience and atmosphere of the thing. Doctor Sleep takes the bare-bones iconography of the film – the twins, the tricycle, the elevator of blood – and staples it onto a plot. The results are about what you’d expect.

What is the plot? Well, I’m sorry you asked. So, there’s this group of Shining Vampires, see? They call themselves the True Knot, and they have the ability to sense if someone has the Shining within them or not. So what they do is, they kidnap that person, eat them, and suck the Shining out of them while moaning orgastically with glowing eyes. It is, somehow, even more ridiculous than I just made it sound. The True Knot were pathetic villains in the book, and they’ve somehow been made even more cartoonish here.

See, as I always saw it, the Shining was kind of an allegorical thing. The beauty of the Kubrick movie was that it existed between the precipice of madness and supernatural; you were never sure of where you were, or what was really happening. It operated on pure nightmare logic. Here, not only is the Shining a tangible thing, but it’s represented via CGI smoke that comes out of people’s mouths. I’m serious. 

It’s not just that this film doesn’t capture the elusive, intangible fear of the film, or the more overtly allegorical and emotional – but no less effective – fear of the book. Doctor Sleep doesn’t capture any fear, ever. This isn’t a scary movie. The one time it comes close is this extended, gratuitious murder scene involving a small child. It goes on for too long, and feels genuinely exploitative. The fact is, the Kubrick film was too classy to sink to this. 

Even in its attempts to be a more conventional film, I thought it failed. I’ve already mentioned that the True Knot are a gaggle of absolute laughingstocks, but Abra Stone doesn’t fare much better. I remember liking this character back when I read the book; being able to see a character’s internal dialogue really does wonders for making them interesting. Here, she’s a nothing of a character, the latest in a long, long, long line of stock “kid with psychic powers” that King loves to write. Maybe Kyliegh Curran has it in her to be a great actress – in fairness to her, no one other than Ewan McGreggor really fares well in this – but as it stands, there are a ton of scenes where her character could be replaced by a cardboard cutout for all the difference it would make.

What sucks especially is that there are a handful of moments that hint at a really good idea at the heart of this film. Like I said, McGreggor is great in this; it’s through his acting that we come the closest to understanding what it would actually be like to live in the aftermath of a very specific trauma. And while so much of this film’s finale consists of, “Hey, remember this?” there is one scene – a conversation at a bar – that raises a number of fascinating possibilities. But it’s not enough. As a film that tries to exist at the intersection between two versions of The Shining, Doctor Sleep ends up honoring neither.

In spite of its title, Tel Aviv on Fire is as un-incendiary as they come

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Considering how potentially incendiary the title of Tel Aviv on Fire is, I was surprised at how slight, well-intentioned, and wholesomely funny this movie turned out to be. The film’s plot directly grapples with heavy topics – the Israel/Palestine conflict being front and center – but in terms of actual execution, the whole thing comes off more like a breezy comedy of errors.

Kais Nashif stars as Salam, a thirty-year-old, slightly meek Palestinian who lives in Jerusalem, but has to cross the border each morning to get to his job. He works on a Ramallah-produced soap opera called “Tel Aviv on Fire,” a melodramatic romance about a Palestinian spy who seduces an Israeli general in service of her people’s cause. Salam serves as the show’s Hebrew consultant. One day, when passing through the checkpoint, he asks one of the officers about whether or not one of the phrases in the script is actually accurate, and is promptly dragged in front of the Israeli commander, Assi, on suspicion of being a spy. Salam quickly manages to prove he’s actually in the entertainment business, and to boost is cred, he plays himself up as the main screenwriter. Unfortunately, this backfires, as the commander’s actually seen the show (his wife is an enormous fan), and…he’s got notes.

A premise like that evokes Munich and Misery in equal measure. Yet Tel Aviv on Fire commits to its silly, good-natured take on what could’ve been a serious morality play. There are no bad guys in the movie, not really; Assi abuses his power, but he does so in order to become Salam’s writing partner so he can do something nice for his wife. Meanwhile, Salam’s new ideas for the show (as provided by the commander) get him promoted to a top screenwriting position, which puts him in a tricky spot; Assi wants the show to end with a wedding, whereas the Palestinian backers want the show to end with an assassination. On top of all that, the show’s two leads have egos that need to be assuaged, Salam wants to springboard his newfound success into a chance with Mariam, a girl he likes, and as it turns out, writing scripts is hard.

That’s a lot of stuff, and I’d be lying if I said Tel Aviv on Fire balanced it all. There’s frequently several subplots happening at once, and while it is praiseworthy how the film balances its Israeli/Palestine material, it must be said that it’s less successful at balancing much else. Mariam keeps disappearing from the movie, for one thing, and a late-movie plot complication – the lead actress of “Tel Aviv on Fire” seeming to develop feelings for Salam, and then attempting to throw a wrench into his relationship with Mariam – comes up in one scene, and then has no bearing on the rest of the film. The conflict with the show’s unseen backers similarly goes nowhere particularly interesting.

Still, what it lacks in narrative grace, it gains in a winning heart and a genuine sense of authenticity to its subject. This is a movie with a refreshingly warm heart, one which manages the great feat of being sincere without ever resorting to sappiness. In a world where it’s all too easy to get caught up in an “Everything’s getting worse!” mindset, here’s a movie that offers some actual, honest-to-goodness hope. That it does so with a healthy dose of satirical humor doesn’t hurt.

 

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Quentin Tarantino’s Late-career Masterpiece

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How do you solve a problem like Tarantino?

Quentin Tarantino burst onto the scene almost thirty years ago with Reservoir Dogs, a crime movie so influential – so fucking good – that it single-handedly revolutionized the way indie films were made and looked at. It genuinely stands alongside Duel and Blood Simple in terms of being a debut feature (well, I say “debut”; technically, he’d made a film beforehand, the reels of which burnt up in a fire) that was pretty close to perfect. He followed that up with Pulp Fiction, and again with Jackie Brown, two films as close to flawless as they come.

Then something happened, and Tarantino…regressed, I guess is the right word. Look, I still love Kill Bill; for my money, it’s the last capital G-Great movie he’s made. But that love is tinged with some pretty serious reservation, since Kill Bill pioneered some of Tarantino’s worst tendencies as a director, quirks that have haunted him ever since: an utter lack of discipline, ostentatious hyper-violence that doesn’t even pretend to take place in reality, and obscene running lengths. Some of those I can live with – it is pretty fun to watch people explode in the most over-the-top way imaginable – but it’s his late-career aversion to editing that I really take issue with.

Kill Bill is the last film Tarantino made that felt focused in its excesses, if that makes sense. The bizarre digressions into Western iconography and anime-land worked for that story. The same cannot be said of Death Proof, which did its level best to make Tarantino-speak seem unbearably boring. Inglourious Basterds worked fine enough on a chapter-to-chapter basis, but completely failed to tie itself together in its closing moments the way Pulp Fiction had done. Django Unchained managed to scuttle every ounce of goodwill it had built up over its two-hour running time near the beginning of its last act, with one of the most annoying, movie-ruining director cameos ever put to film (complete with Austrailian accent!) And The Hateful Eight is at least 45 minutes too long; and that’s in its SHORTEST form.

On the basis of his first few films alone, Quentin Tarantino deserves his status as pop-culture icon. But as a result of his fame, he’s completely abandoned any of the restraint and focus that made his earlier work so special. His latest films have been too long, too unfocused, and too in need of some serious editing to really compare.

So I had been tepid in my hype for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. While I’ve never outright hated one of his films (even Death Proof, which came close, at least had the good sense to give Zoë Bell a leading role), I was still conscious of the fact that I was about to see a two hour and forty minute movie. That’s only a few minutes shorter than Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight, two movies I thought would never fucking end.

More than that, when I first heard that Tarantino was making a “Manson movie”, my heart sank. Movies based around the horrific crimes of Charles Manson and his “family” are already turning into one of the worst subgenres of film ever to exist; while Bad Times at the El Royale was pretty good, and smart about how it incorporated a Manson-like murderer, it must be said that abysmal dreck like The Haunting of Sharon Tate and Wolves at the Door have been the Manson movie norm.

This isn’t the first time Tarantino’s tackled tricky subjects, obviously. I’ve long admired how deftly he’s walked the tightrope of going juuuust far enough, without ever falling into outright exploitation. But Manson is different from the Nazis, or even slavery. He’s more specific, if that makes any sense. This seemed like a bad idea from the jump, and the originally intended release date – meant to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Tate–LaBianca murders – only made things worse.

So it gives me great pleasure to say that, for my money, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Quentin Tarantino’s late-day masterpiece. It’s a film that feels focused. It feels like it has an honest-to-goodness point. It feels, for all the world, like an anti-late-day Tarantino movie. For the first time since Kill Bill, the overall experience grew on me the more I sat with it, rather than buckling under its ungainly, aussie-accented seams.

To be clear; this is a long movie, one perfectly content with taking its time. Described as a “hangout movie” not unlike Pulp Fiction or Jackie Brown, the film mainly focuses on the declining star of Rick Dalton, a famous TV actor whose stab at moviestardom has fizzled out, and his loyal stuntman Cliff Booth. The two of them are very emblematic of the “Old Hollywood” that Tarantino so lovingly remembers; some of the most joyous passages of the film are the fully immersive recreations of Rick’s old Cowboy show, and the painstaking processes that define new auditions.

This has been described as a mid-life crisis movie, which is understandable. It is at times nostalgic to a fault, frequently getting lost in its own period trappings (when Cliff goes to feed his dog, we see every single label in his cabinet). But I think it’s smarter than mere hokey sentimentality. For as idyllic as Tinseltown may seem, we’re keenly aware at all times that it’s a paradise built on a shaky foundation.

That’s where Sharon Tate comes in. Now, I’ve seen reports from other people who felt that she was unnecessary to the film; worse, that she was “boring,” or “one dimensional”. Not so; she is the very heart and soul of this movie. To me, the very best scene in the film concerns Sharon Tate taking an afternoon for herself, and going to see The Wrecking Crew, which she stars in. She slips in unannounced (after sweetly introducing herself to the teller), and spends the next hour or so drinking in the audience’s reaction; an audience that doesn’t know she’s there.

Sharon Tate becomes real again through this movie. We’re reminded that this was a living, breathing person, with hopes and dreams of the future, who loved her friends and her husband (the shadow of Roman Polanski hangs over this movie, as a nonspecific – but very deliberate – reminder of the ugliness beneath the sheen). The same can’t be said of the Manson “family”, who are remembered as they deserve to be; cartoon loonies, high on their own false sense of self-importance and enlightenment.

There are many ways to read what Tarantino’s trying to say with this movie. There’s a lot of subtext going on, some of it clear – there’s a highly effective sequence where Rick’s fake audition for a Western TV show begins to mirror Cliff’s real-life escapade at the Manson compound – and some of it less so. There’s a lot that can be read, for instance, in the scene where Cliff refuses a blowjob from an underage girl, especially in our post-Weinstein world.

For myself, though, I’m just glad we finally have a Tarantino film that invites thought, seems to actually contain layers, and doesn’t vastly overstay its welcome. It’s been a while, old friend. Thanks for ditching the Aussie accent.

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A Review of Game of Thrones Season Eight, Episode One: “Winterfell”

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Image source: https://i.ytimg.com/vi/ozkHwFG91AI/maxresdefault.jpg

****This article is long and full of spoilers. Proceed with caution****

After a two-year long fevered wait, audiences on April 14th were treated a somewhat underwhelming but no less entertaining return to the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros of the hit TV show Game of Thrones. This first episode of the final eight season, directed by David Nutter, was thematically focused on setting the stage for conflicts to come later in the season while thematically calling back to the first episode which debuted nine years ago. We were treated to several long-anticipated reunions and some new questions were raised about the nature about the show’s long-anticipated ending. However, for a show famous for its bloodiness and willingness to kill off its main characters, only one minor character was sacrificed for this season’s opening episode.

The show opened on a young boy running through the Winterfell village and climbing up a tree to get a better view of the incoming Targaryen army led by Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and Daenerys “Dany” Targaryen (Emilia Clarke). This the first of several deliberate circular callbacks to the first episode “Winter is Coming” which premiered in 2011, when Arya Stark (Maisie Williams), then a young rebellious girl from a noble family, scaled a wagon to witness the entourage of King Robert Baratheon arriving. We, the audience, are then subsequently treated a reunion between Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) and Jon which comes off as heartfelt but surprisingly distant and emotionless. What little emotion there is in the scene is abruptly interrupted by Bran’s declaration that the wall has fallen and that one of Dany’s dragons, Viserion, has been captured and zombified by the Night King. We are also introduced to what will surely be one of the central conflicts of Season Eight: the relationship between Sansa Stark and Dany which could best be described amid wintry conditions as “icy.” Sansa is mistrustful of Dany, a foreign imposter, and resentful of Jon for having seemingly thrown away the title of King in the North for love.

The episode’s theme of setup by showing the unrest of the Northern lords who are (probably rightfully) outraged about their Jon’s acquiescence to Dany. In a brief sequence moment, we see a young lord, Ned Umber, sent to retrieve the remains of his people from his castle The Last Hearth which lies just south of The Wall. We are then treated a philosophical moment between the show’s great thinkers as Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), Varys (Conleth Hill), and Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) muse on death, old age, and the innocent of youth. The following sequence was one of silliness, which saw Dany and Jon traipse about the north riding on the back of dragons, in a scene reminiscent of How to Train Your Dragon with all the soppy steamy romance attached. They land at a waterfall and Dany declares that together that could stay there alone forever. This is a second prominent callback, this time to Jon’s relationship with Ygritte in Season Three, Episode Five “Kissed by Fire” where Ygritte asks Jon, alone in a cave, to run away and live apart from society forever.

The show then moves to King’s Landing and Cersei Lannister (Lena Heady) who, as ever, is hell-bent on a quest for revenge against her enemies. In her hour of great need, she has turned to Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbaek) and the mercenary Golden Company army. Her plan is to wait for the Northern armies and the undead army to destroy each other and then to seize and kill of whatever remains. Having cast off her final moral compass in her brother Jamie Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), Cersei is now unburdened by any desire other than to protect her unborn baby and to destroy her enemies even if it means having distasteful sex with Euron. In a brief scene, the show makes room for a widely-celebrated rescue of Yara Greyjoy (Gemma Whelan) from Euron’s clutches by her PTSD-affected brother Theon (Alfie Allen). We are reunited with Bronn (Jerome Flynn), who is partaking in the pleasures of a brothel. In the episode’s humorous callback, we hear from one of the prostitutes that a ginger solider, heavily implied to be Ed Sheeran’s infamous Lannister solider, has been severely burned in the loot train attack of Season Seven. Given the negative publicity against Game of Thrones over his portrayal, his unfortunate fate is likely to be well received the Thrones fandom. However, Bronn is interrupted in his brothel exploits by the Qyburn, the queen’s personal hand, to establish his season’s story arc: Bronn is tasked with finding and killing Jaime and Tyrion in the North, his former employers and erstwhile friends.

We return to Winterfell to connect with Samwell “Sam” Tarly (Jon Bradley) who as usual is ensconced in the library. He is interrupted by Dany and Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen), who have come to thank him personally for curing Jorah of Greyscale in Season Seven. But the Samwell appreciation goes horribly awry when Dany informs him she executed his father and brother for not bending the knee following the loot train attack. Sam runs out of the library deeply distraught, only to run into Bran who informs him that the time has come to inform Jon of his true parentage. We follow Sam to the crypts where he meets with Jon, but the reunion is cut short as Sam – in one of the most-anticipated scenes of Game of Thrones – informs Jon of his actual parents, Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen, whose bloodline gives him a more legitimate connection and right to the Iron Throne than Dany.

The episode reaches its conclusion in the Last Hearth castle. We meet up with the remnants of the Brotherhood without Banners and the Night’s Watch, who have fled the broken wall for Winterfell. However, in the bowels of the castle they make a grisly discovery: poor young Ned Umber has been impaled against the wall amidst the ritual spiral of the Night King and his undead army. In a doubly-chilling scene, Brotherhood and Night’s Watch realize they are cut off from Winterfell by the undead army. While they stand talking, the corpse of Ned Umber rises from the dead as a wight and begins to shriek and attack them. The wight is quickly set ablaze without casualties but not before everyone including the audience is deeply disturbed by the gravitas of the situation and the upcoming conflict. The episode ends with Jaime Lannister arriving on horseback to join the fight against the undead army. However, he is greeted first by Bran who, all the way back in Season One, was crippled by Jaime after being pushed from a tower for witnessing his incestuous relationship with Cersei. The camera pans over Jaime as emotions of shock and guilt play across his face before the episode cuts to black.

The primary role of “Winterfell” was to set the stage for the upcoming season. It did so in well-executed but unspectacular fashion. By Game of Thrones standards, it ranks among the tamest episodes, with only one-character death and three naked women, a considerable branching-out for a show which has staked its reputation and fame on having both in large amount. The episode hints at what is to come and served mostly as an extended catch-up and trailer for bigger and better battles and the final, epic conclusion. The episode will not live long in the memory, but it serves as a placeholder which successfully whets the appetite of fans to tune in, next week, for the second of the final six episodes of this decade-spanning, generation-defining TV show.

Avengers: Endgame Review

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Avengers: Endgame is a wild, ungainly, imperfect mess of a movie. It’s a film that, in all likelihood, will be picked apart in the days and weeks to come. It’s way too long, for one thing, and there are certain plot points that are rushed and characters that are shafted and mistakes that were made.

But I don’t care, because I loved that beautiful mess. It made me feel. It made me gasp. It made me cry. It made me laugh, out loud, and often, and at full volume. It set out to do something, and by God, it actually mostly managed to accomplish just that. More than that, though, Avengers: Endgame was something I kind of wasn’t expecting: an ENDING. This is a movie that actually earns its title by clearly and definitively closing the chapter on a number of things that we’ve been watching for 11 years.

Actually, let’s start there, because that’s kind of this film’s greatest strength and its most glaring weakness. Because instead of spending its entire runtime teasing the future (as a few of these movies have been guilty of), the film spends most of its time celebrating the past. This is understandable, and at times, joyous (not to reveal anything, but the way this film uses older footage is downright inspired on a Forrest Gumpian level). However, it does mean that the film never truly eeks out its own identity, and at times can feel like a 3 hour exercise in, “Hey, remember this thing?” Now don’t get me wrong; it WORKS. I was having an absolute blast sitting there and going, “Why yes, I DO remember that thing!” And saying it could’ve or should’ve been more than what it is feels…ungrateful, somehow. But it could’ve/should’ve? Maybe?

I don’t know. But, for whatever else, this is it, and they DID it. There are callbacks ahoy, and almost every character who’s ever been in any of these damn movies pops up at one point or another (and I really do mean almost everyone; it has to be at least double the cast of Infinity War, which itself was stuffed to the brim), but miraculously enough, the film finds that balance that Thanos was so desperate for. Everyone feels like they get their moment to shine. More than that, the film frequently lets itself slow down, something Infinity War occasionally struggled with. There are quiet, contemplative scenes in this film, real character driven moments that have genuine heart to them. I can honestly say that certain things choked me up.

And the film is so damn fun. The quips are at their best: mostly non-distracting and hella funny. The situations are inventive and unpredictable, mostly. The visuals are frequently stunning (PLEAAAASE do not ruin this film by seeing it in 3D. It’s dark enough already, and 3D is generally awful. Trust me, the spectacle doesn’t need it). Not since Return of the King have we had a 3 hour film this shockingly economical. It’s genuinely tough to imagine when a good time for a bathroom break would be.

It’s been 11 years. 22 movies, the worst of which was “meh.” We are at the end of one of the grandest cinematic experiments of all time, the success of which has yet to be matched (weirdly, the only “cinematic universe” that’s come close is the Conjuring-verse, and even that’s pretty hit-or-miss). Maybe I’ll sour on this film, though I hope I don’t. Because right now, I’m very happy with where we are.

We’ll be back in the MCU soon enough. But for now, we can rest. It’s over. And it worked. I can’t believe it worked.

Dying to Revive, Journey Just Starts. 走过涅槃重生,人生才始启程。

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Zhang performs her first solo recital, “Dying to Revive”, accompanied by pianist Andrew Stuart. Picture Credit: Julian Fernandez

English Version:

On the night of April 3, 2019, with endless applause and cheers, I closed my first solo recital ever in my life with great success. “Dying to Revive.” It was an unforgettable night.

This is a recital about “death and life.” I died over and over again in the songs, and I sang my own eulogy. After my dance in this dark hell, I started a journey of revival. As I finished singing the last lyrics from Night of the Sixth Magnitude Star, “After being reborn, I’ll shine on tomorrow,” I finally reached new life. Just as shown on the poster, the first row of black and white photos means “death,” and in the second row there’s a movement from holding nothing to receiving life.

After the concert, when I saw my friends all waiting so long in line to hug me and send me good wishes, I experienced a happiness and sense of achievement that I’d never felt before. I appreciate my voice teacher Jennifer Blades, piano accompanist Andrew Stewart, and my friend Elysia Hempel for helping me make this recital possible, and I’m also so thankful for all of my friends who came to support me. The time you spend on roses is what makes roses so special.

I also want to appreciate all of my hard work behind the stage. I couldn’t believe I learned three new pieces in this half semester, sang them all, and gave a great performance. I think I deserve that night and all of the wishes and applause. But I know there’s still a long way to go.

One of my friends told me, “You are shining when chasing your dream step by step.”

Being prepared and not nervous is the key to everything, and I felt this so strongly on that night. It felt so good for everything to be under control and turn out better than expected. After the performance, a friend said that I have magic, that my songs have a serene power which draws people into their aura. I heard that one of my friends cried halfway through the concert, and many other people told me that my songs made them want to cry at some point. Another friend said that he sank into real darkness, but saw a shimmering light. I never knew that my voice could be that powerful. Aside from all of my surprise, I was very glad that the audience could feel my emotions from my songs.

As a performer, honestly I could not feel the aura and enjoy myself during the performance because I need to think about how to deal with the next place in which I often make mistakes and how to pronounce the lyrics better and control my breath. But when I watched the video the day after, surprisingly, I felt like I was watching another person’s performance, and I became a member of the audience, and I was moved by that singer’s songs. That was the best feeling that from the audience’s perspective; I could feel what I wanted to show, and I felt so moved.

From my conversations with my audience members afterward, surprisingly, all of them said that their favorite song was the Chinese song, Da Yu (Big Fish). Something I wondered about was that most of them didn’t understand the lyrics, but still loved it. Then I asked my professor and she said, “Because this language and this song is part of you.” Suddenly, a conversation that I had with a musician came to my mind. I asked him which was more important: melody or lyrics. I used to think melody was more important, but he said that it’s lyrics. Although the audience may not understand the lyrics, as performers, the goal is to show what we’ve understood. Melody is a tool to help present the lyrics. When I first heard his words, I was surprised but I didn’t understand much. Finally I proved what he said exactly in my own performance.

Zhang and Hempel perform their duet, accompanied by pianist Andrew Stuart, during Zang’s recital. Picture Credit: Julian Fernandez

I die over and over again in the songs, but in real life, my journey has just started.

Coincidently, last Friday was the Tomb Sweeping Festival in China. Showing “death and life” in this concert gave me more thoughts about my own life. Because I’m still alive, I can do the things I love, and make everything possible.

Soon, I’ll start to volunteer at a hospice. At first, I was kind of afraid of this work, but gradually I realized that since I’m so into “life” and “death”, by doing this special job, I might grow and have a deeper understanding of life and death, though the job will be heavy.

Recently, I read a quote from people who work in this field: “You matter because you are you. You matter to the last moment of your life, and we will do all we can, not only to help you die peacefully, but to live until you die.” Till the last breath, life is always an important existence. And this job gives people strength to live. I recalled a sentence, “We should not spend too much time mourning the death. Instead, we should spend more strength to confront our lives. As long as we exist, Death has not arrived; when Death arrives, we are not existing anymore.” As long as there’s still breath, it is the biggest affront to death. Although we are all going to compromise in the end.

I remember that after my grandfather passed away, in front of the crematory’s fire door. My mother said to me that no matter how hard life is and how much you feel that you can’t continue, you can come to see the real farewell. Then you will feel that all the things you thought you cannot endure are not a big deal anymore. It’s everyone’s last station, a little box.

A few days ago I read a sentence: “People die three times in their lives. The first time is biological death; the second time is one’s funeral, which is the sociological death; the third time is being forgotten by the last person who remembered them, and that is the real death.” Thinking this way, my grandfather has still not left me, and people who I’m going to serve will also not disappear, because of being remembered by their loved ones.

After the journey from death to life, I’m just starting on my road.

BY YUWAN ZHANG

TRANSLATED WITH THE HELP OF JULIAN FERNANDEZ

Chinese Version:

Poster for Zhang’s recital created by herself.

 

2019年4月3日晚,伴随着掌声四起,我成功地谢幕了人生中第一场个人演唱会。“涅槃重生”,如此难忘的一个夜晚。

这是一场关于“生与死”的演唱会。我在歌曲中一次又一次地死去,唱着给自己的悼词。随着在地狱黑暗里的舞蹈,我开启了重生之旅。在唱完六等星之夜里的“重新转生后,相信明天一定会熠熠生辉”,我终于走向新生。正如海报上,第一排的黑白代表着死亡,第二排从一无所有,到获得生命。

演唱会后,看着大家排着队来拥抱我时,感受到了前所未有的欣喜。感恩我的老师Jennifer Blades,钢琴家Andrew Stewart和我的朋友Elysia Hempel的帮助让这场演出变成可能,也感谢所有到场支持的朋友们。正是你们花在玫瑰身上的时间,让玫瑰如此珍贵。

也很感谢一直努力的自己。这学期新接触三首曲目,依旧成功地呈现了这一晚精彩的汇演。我的努力和付出值得所有的掌声和祝福,但明白还有很长的路要走。

朋友对我说,“一步一步追寻梦想的你,是闪闪发光的”。

胸有成竹,在舞台上的胜券在握,以及结果的超乎预期。整场演出最强烈的感受是,“准备充分和保持冷静是成功的关键”。演出后有朋友说,我的歌能有让人安静,并且沉浸在我营造的意境里的力量,那是我的魔法。听说一名朋友在演唱会不到一半时就已泪流满面,也有很多人说,我的歌让他们有时候特别想哭。有人也告诉我,他在我的歌里能沉浸在真正的黑暗里,以及看到黑暗里的光芒。从未曾想象过自己的歌声能有这样的力量;惊讶之余,也很开心听众能从歌里感受到我的情感。

作为歌者,在演出时其实无法完全投入享受意境,因为需要思考下一个易错点该如何渡过,以及歌词该如何更好地发音等等。但第二天当我看自己的录像时,竟奇迹般感觉像在看另一个人的表演;而自己变成了一个观众,被那位歌者的歌曲感动着。能从观众的角度感受到我想传达的,并且打动自己,是最好的结果。

在观众们的反馈中发现,所有的人都千篇一律最喜欢我的中文歌《大鱼》。出乎意料般,因为他们都并不理解歌词,却依旧喜欢这首歌。之后问老师,她说,“Because this language and this song is part of you.”想起之前和一位音乐家的谈话。我问他,曲调和歌词,哪一个更重要。我曾经认为曲调更加重要,但他的回答是歌词更重要。即使听众无法理解歌词,但若表演者能够通过自己的理解和表演来将歌词的情感传达给听众,这就是目标;而曲调是一种辅助表达歌词的方法。当时对他的这番言论挺新奇,这次终于在自己的歌里得到印证。

我在歌曲中一次又一次地死去,但在真正的人生里,我才始启程。

巧合一般,上周五正值中国清明节,这场演唱会通过“生与死”的主题,也让我对自己的生命也有了更多的思考。因为我还活着,才可以做喜欢的事,让一切变成可能。

不久后会在一家临终服务中心进行志愿者服务。最开始对这项服务有些畏惧,但是慢慢想开后,觉得既然对“生”和“死”很感兴趣,通过这份特殊的工作,也许能让我成长,对生死有更深的理解,即使如此沉重。

最近读到一段关于这个职业的从业者的自白。“You matter because you are you. You matter to the last moment of your life, and we will do all we can, not only to help you die peacefully, but to live until you die.  ” 即使在生命的最后一刻,也是重要的存在。而这份职业就是给予人们活着的勇气。想起一段话,“不应用太多的时间去凭吊死神,而应用更多的勇气去直面人生。因为我们存在时死神不会降临,等到死神光临时,我们又不复存在了。” 只要一息尚存,就是对死亡最大的蔑视,即使我们终将走向妥协.

想起爷爷去世后,火葬场的炉门前。妈妈对我说,当你觉得生活多么困难,无法继续走下去时,就来火葬场看一看生离死别吧。你就会觉得一切放得下的,放不下的,都不是事了。这都是每个人最后的归属,一个小盒子。

前几天读过一段话,“人的一生有三次死亡:第一次是生物学死亡, 第二次是葬礼,被宣告社会性死亡,第三次便是被最后一个记得其存在的人遗忘,那时才是真正的死亡”。这样想着,爷爷也并没有离我远去;我即将服务的人们也因为被思念着,而不会消逝。

走过涅槃重生,人生才始启程。

BY YUWAN ZHANG

Captain Marvel Review

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Picture Source: refinery29.com

I’m still in awe of what Marvel has managed to do over the last decade. When I was little, I used to ask my parents what it was like watching Star Wars for the first time, living through that historic moment in film. And now, I can say I’m living through something like that; a point after which everything will be different. This level of interconnected storytelling, while commonplace in comic books, is still an extraordinary novelty in movies. It shouldn’t have worked. That it did is a miracle.

Still, they can’t all be winners. Every once in a while, you’re going to slip up. Even so, I was very excited for Captain Marvel for a number of reasons. Marvel had gotten Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the team behind the wonderful Half Nelson and Sugar, to helm the project. They’d gotten an all-star cast, led by Oscar-winner Brie Larson. Old favorites Samuel L. Jackson and Clark Gregg were returning! There was gonna be a war between two interstellar races from the comics! Shape shifting aliens! It was gonna be set in the 90s! What could go wrong?

Already, there are articles appearing comparing this film to its closest apparent DCEU counterpart, Wonder Woman. It’s a cheap and easy comparison to make (take the two recent female-led superhero movies and pit them against each other!), but a quick point that I think highlights my issues with Captain Marvel is this: Wonder Woman was a focused movie. It knew exactly what it wanted to say narratively and it did so. It used its period-piece trappings to make a broader, empathetic point about gender struggles both then and now. But, above all else, the main character was extraordinary: a complex, multi-dimensional person who was an absolute joy to spend time with for two hours. I believed in Wonder Woman because I believed in Wonder Woman.

Captain Marvel, on the other hand, is all over the fucking place. It’s a space opera-turned 90s throwback movie-turned buddy cop romp-turned immigrant parable-turned CGI slugfest. To be clear, there are good movies that have incorporated all of these elements before. This is not one of them. There’s no clear narrative through line whatsoever. These scenes never cohese into a whole, and as such, it feels like they’re actively working against each other.

Part of this is the almost overwhelming lack of visual style. Remember how in Thor: Ragnarok, or the Captain America movies, or the first two Avengers, or Black Panther, you could just tell instantly who was directing the films? That immediate, clear authorial voice? That is completely absent here, and it’s a damn shame. One of Marvel’s most admirable qualities is their willingness to hire indie directors and let them do their thing. Ragnarok’s Taika Waititi is the obvious example, but even Avengers’ Joss Whedon, in spite of him creating three of the greatest television shows ever made (also Dollhouse), had only helmed one feature film before Avengers — the good-but-unprofitable Serenity. Like I said, Half Nelson was wonderful, but it was very low-budget. It’s useless to speculate, but it feels like Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck were chewed up and spat out by the “Marvel machine”; for how blandly competent it was, I was half convinced they’d ditched Boden and Fleck about halfway through and brought in the guy who made Thor: The Dark World. This is a product made by an assembly line. In that way, it more closely resembles the directorless, hacked-to-pieces disaster Justice League, and I truly can think of no worse insult.

And so we come to Brie Larson. Now, Larson is an incredible actress. I feel like this is a given. While the Academy Awards have a very well-deserved reputation for being wrong on an alarmingly consistent basis (hi, Crash, Green Book, etc.), Larson’s Oscar for Room was one of those rare instances where the Academy got it absolutely right, both for the actress and the role. She brought a level of nuance and passion to that film that blew me (and seemingly everyone else) away. But there’s just something wrong here. She feels disconnected from everything, like the movie’s happening around her and she’s just observing it. Captain Marvel is a multi-layered character, but it really felt like Larson got stuck on the “stoic, dispassionate soldier” layer and no one knew what to do about it.

Also, the action scenes just generally suck. Part of this is again Larson, who never really seems to be in any danger. Even the early fight where her powers are greatly restrained, she plows through henchmen with about as much ease as ever, and always with that one stoic facial expression. But mostly, it’s the camera work, and the return of the dreaded shaky-cam quick-cut combo. There’s a chase scene, where Nick Fury and Phil Coulson are trying to catch up to a moving train on which Captain Marvel is dueling a Kree, and it plays like The French Connection but shitty. The chase takes place in broad daylight, but it’s practically impossible to tell where anyone or anything is in relation to each other.

Speaking of fights, there’s one where Captain Marvel has to go up against her former comrades in arms. These people, we’re meant to understand, have been fighting alongside each other for six years, having each other’s backs, looking out for the other. A unit. And now they have to battle for the fate of their civilizations. This should be some grand, Shakespearean shit, but it’s all just brushed aside for an empty, dispassionate, poorly choreographed fight set to a really bad tune.

This isn’t a completely bad movie. There’s the occasional moment of real charm, the most obvious being Stan Lee’s very sweet cameo. Talking of Nick Fury and Phil Coulson, the de-aging special effects are genuinely awe-inspiring. Sam Jackson looks exactly like he did in The Negotiator, and after about a minute I forgot I was looking at a special effect. Jackson and Larson have good interplay, as they do with Ben Mendelsohn’s character. His Telos felt very well fleshed out, and he gets some of the best lines. And the cat was cute.

But at the end of the day, the film is a disappointment. The lack of worldbuilding cripples any sense of reality the other planets might’ve had, the overall message is confused and unclear, and there’s a real sense that the main character just isn’t interested in anything happening around her. I don’t know if it’s an actor thing or a director thing, but somewhere something went wrong. I’m still excited for Endgame — of course I am — but this could’ve been so much more.

 

Us review

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Photo Source: www.vanityfair.com

If there were any lingering doubts as to Jordan Peele’s skill behind the camera, the opening minutes to Us puts them firmly to bed. Set in 1986 Santa Cruz, we follow a young girl on vacation with her parents, wandering through a an amusement park-illuminated boardwalk. Said girl is separated from her parents, whereupon she wanders into a hall of mirrors, where she finds…let’s call her a bad reflection. As you may have seen in the trailer, she grows up, marries, has two children, and goes back to that same beach, where they are all menaced by a whole family of bad reflections.

But back to the carnival; that first sequence is masterful. The movement of the camera both accentuates the size and unfamiliarity of the girl’s surroundings, and pushes in, giving the place a tight, almost claustrophobic feel. The sound design is perfect, expertly capturing the disorienting nature of all amusement parks everywhere. We are right there with the girl, being pulled into that awful funhouse of mirrors, and like her, we don’t like what we see. But we can’t turn away.

For his sophomore feature, Jordan Peele creeps along, the film at times seeming to move at a deliberate snail’s pace, forcing us to wait for the fireworks factory. Whereas Get Out was a perfect slow-burn thriller (its screenplay win at the Oscars was very well deserved), Us occasionally feels scattershot, jumping around in fits and starts all while displaying a mastery of the craft. While the pacing isn’t always up to snuff, the individual scenes are never less than wonderful; anyone who saw the masterful 2015 psychological horror The Gift will remember how that film expertly took advantage of both the foreground and background, using little details to mine extra tension. Us does this brilliantly as well, crafting scenes with such skill that you’d swear he’s been making films forever.

Us is way more of a horror film that Get Out, which was itself more of a thriller (though genres are, obviously, stupid and reductive). Us is also probably less of a social commentary than Get Out, at least in terms of having a clear, easily-digestible message. I feel like I need to see it a second time in order to parse out what it all means. Also, I really, really want to see it a second time just anyways. This is a film made with such a passion for horror, someone with a deep love for the genre.

If Us isn’t quite as clear and groundbreaking as Get Out, it’s always entertaining in the moment. I’m very curious to see what others think the film “means”; I’ll confess that it’s not quite as clear to me as Get Out was, the meaning of which hit me like a punch in the gut. Here, it could be any number of things things, and it occurs to me that it might actually be more vague on purpose; while the film certainly offers up a couple of potential underlying themes (the title itself might be a big clue), I imagine that this is something that will be argued about and debated indefinitely. That’s not a bad thing.

As much as the directing stands out, this is definitely an actor’s movie. Lupita Nyong’o won the Oscar for 12 Years a Slave and provided the moral compass for Black Panther (lowkey, she’s the smartest person in that movie), and I was hyped beyond belief to see her tear up a horror flick. She does not disappoint. So good is she, in fact, that I feel comfortable in predicting that the Oscars will completely ignore her (it happened to Toni Collette, probably the best all-around performance in a movie last year). Winston Duke, her Black Panther co-star, captivates the screen with his charisma, creating the kind of dad I feel like we’ve all met. His comic timing is perfectly delivered and deployed. Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex play their children, and they are both wonderful; one of the best scenes in the entire film has the four of them arguing at a dinner table, and through the dialogue and direction we are shown glimpses into their minds, their insecurities, their strengths.

There is some unforgettable imagery in this movie. As can be expected in a story about doppelgängers, the idea of doubles and mirrors is quite prevalent. Near the beginning of the film, we see a doomsday prophet with a cardboard sign with a quote from Jeremiah 11:11, Later, our attention is drawn to a digital clock where the time is 11:11. Soon after, the dad watches sports on TV, where the score is 11 to 11. When the Wilsons go to the beach, they meet up with another family, and it’s interesting to see them as even more of a broken mirror image than the doppelgängers. And I’ll just say this: there was a “Hands Across America” flyer in my old kindergarten classroom, the one where everyone’s holding hands and circling the globe. I will NEVER look at that the same way again.

I can definitely see being underwhelmed by Us. It’s an imperfect, confounding, at times frustrating film to get a handle on. But I really got into it, appreciating the crazy wavelength it operated on, as well as how Jordan Peele was taking deliberate steps to expand from his previous film. Whatever else, it’s a film I’ll be puzzling over for a long time coming.

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