Wednesday, August 7, 2019

"ALWAYS BE MY MAYBE" (2019): WHEN (DELIBERATELY) LESS BECOMES (CALCULATIVEY) INFINITELY MORE - by CEJ



________________________________________________

VAULTED TREASURES: MOVIES YOU NEVER KNEW ABOUT, YOU FORGOT, 
... OR YOU FORGOT TO LOVE MORE THE FIRST TIME AROUND!


ALWAYS BE MY MAYBE 

Dir. by - Nahnatchka Khan 
Prod. by - Nathan Kahane, 
Erin Westerman, Randall Park, Ali Wong
Written by - Ali Wong, 
Randall Park, 
Michael Golamco
Director of Photography - 
Tim Suhrstedt
Edited by - Lee Haxall 
Production Design -
Richard Toyon
Music by - 
Michael Andrews Greyboy

Run Time: 102 mins.
Release: 
5/29/19 (select theatrical) 
5/31/19 (Netflix)
Distrubuted by - Netflix

GullCottage rating
(**** on a scale of 1-5)
__________________


     There's a scene in Douglas Trumball's 1983 experiential sci fi film BRAINSTORM where project head Cliff Robertson says to his tech development leaders Christopher Walken and Natalie Wood (they in charge of creating a headset which can transfer both first person memories and emotions from one person to another as simply as you'd make a phone call), "I want you to knock my socks off!". And to this day that line always comes to mind when I see a film, hear a piece of music, watch a stand-up concert or whatever which I didn't expect to floor me as much as it did.


     That rare phrase came clearly to mind earlier tonight (well, technically yesterday as it's past midnight now) while finally getting around to watching the Netflix feature rom-com ALWAYS BE MY MAYBE. Now, before you make that face, ...yeah, yeah, I know! Most friends and acquaintances I know who've seen the film have made mention of the fact that it's a charming - and even darned good -rom-com, but in the grand scheme of things really no great shakes, and certainly no WHEN HARRY MET SALLY or other such film. But I disagree. It actually is, and for reasons I think many have overlooked. Here me out to the end of this and I think you just may (gulp! ... dare I say) find yourself agreeing with me. At any rate ...


     I believe that, not unlike with comic book adaptations, audiences (and certainly high minded cineaestes) are conditioned to not expect any kind of noteworthy socio-political layerings within certain genres. And because they don't expect it as they might with for example a Terence Malick or Oliver Stone or other sort of film, ... well, they don't find it. But take a look say at two comic book films which opened within less than a month of each other in 2016 - CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR and BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE. Both are perhaps two of the most trenchant post 9/11 films ever made, be they "comic book adaptation", "serious" or otherwise. Both deal with a societal / national security response after a terrorist-like attack of mass destruction. And both are about how a group of individuals who normally should be on the same page suddenly find themselves divided by a blurred line where "prudent response" and "xenophobic paranoia" (and the possible suspension of civil rights because of it) places them in violent ideological conflict with one another. I've always said that if one fails (or refuses) to see that blatant socio-political warning within those films then you should just hand in your official movie fan card. But that's another posting.


     Let's face it - the average social "message" (if you wanna go that route) is more often than not much more effectively carried and injected into society's bloodstream via the less overtly self-aware cloaking which a standard (even played out and cliched') genre film can offer than by it's more "serious" (if you will) cinematic kin. Think back on the original PLANET OF THE APES (1968) and how it subtly and subverisvely carried many of the same socio-political discussion points into mainstream America which at the time caused similarly themed - but more obvious - films like THE DEFIANT ONES and GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER to be protested and even banned in some southern American states. Now, don't get me wrong, ALWAYS BE MY MAYBE isn't a "cloaked socio-political manifesto" of any kind. Certainly not like the original APES and other films from ROLLERBALL to ALIEN NATION to CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR were. It's a charming and amusing rom-com. But precisely because it's so damned normal is exactly why it so impressively (cue Cliff) "knocked my socks off".

Social relevance through pop genre: Franklin Schaffner's PLANET OF THE APES (1968) / 
The Russo's CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016)

     Think about it - the comedy series WILL AND GRACE arguably did more to advance among the general Joe & Jane Middle America populace the simple concept that gay folks are as normal as anyone else than did decades of damn good / critically acclaimed serious films like THAT CERTAIN SUMMER, LONGTIME COMPANION and PHILADELPHIA. And as for ethnic representation and racially themed subject matter, observe how similarly more typical / normal (and perhaps even cliched') sitcoms like SANFORD & SON, BLACK-ISH, JANE THE VIRGIN and UGLY BETTY did more on a regular basis to drive home the fact that African-Americans and Latin-Americans are as (surprise, surprise) normal and as all American as anyone else than did twenty years of more overtly dramatic Oscar and Emmy bait films and series which trafficked in said similar subject matter.

     This those series did by a) ... and super importantly! ... simply being funny, and b) by simply being accurate to the unique experiences of certain folks to such a degree that (via that wonderful experiential mechanism of emotional transference we call cinema) other folks ironically found those experiences to be not unique at all but similar to their own. That is why ALWAYS BE MY MAYBE "blew my socks off" in the best BRAINSTORM-like way. WHEW! See, it all came full circle didn't it, even while you were thinking the whole time "Where the hell is he going with all of this?". Haha!

Director Nahnatchka Khan (center) on set 

     The premise of ALWAYS BE MY MAYBE is simple, ... perhaps in the extreme. But it's this (so-called) "simplicity" which - for me anyway - works as such an effective hook into the audience's "sense of personal familiarity". The film opens by covering the childhood-to-young-adult lives of San Francisco latchkey kid Sasha Tran (whose parents are always involved elsewhere) and next door neighbor Marcus Kim - whose family kinda / sorta comes to adopt Sasha as their surrogate own. Needless to say, spending so much time together as BFF's, Sasha and Marcus come to fall in love over the years, though neither of them realize it, ... or at least aren't willing to admit it. That is until one clumsy evening when both lose their virginity to one another and, unable to get around the initial discomfort, they go their separate ways. Years later as adults Sasha is a successful celebrity chef engaged to a famous corporate restaurateur, and Marcus runs a local business with his father (character actor fave James Saito) while performing in a talented-but-really-going-nowhere local band called "Hello Peril". The two meet, reconnect, and realize - through a series of genuinely funny and perceptive episodic ups and downs - that they're indeed soul mates destined to be together ... if each can only get out of their own way and let their hearts do the deciding rather than their uber-careful and too protective and practical minds.  Anyway, ...

Girls night out with Veronica (Michelle Buteau) and Sasha (Ali Wong)

     To a degree it's the standard "Boy meets girl; boy loses girl; boy gets girl back" paradigm we've seen in a thousand other rom-coms. But (once again for me at least) the greatness or lame-ness / success or failure in using a tried-and-true (or, hell, even played out) genre to unique effectiveness is in how you use that "tried and true"-ness to new effect. And director Nahnatchka Khan's (not only narratively, but fimically / technically profecient-as-all-hell) film tosses in a few subtle and relatively "subversive" ideas during it's clever "rom-com retread" trip.


     FIRST OF ALL it deliberately steers away from the standard and cliched' "The woman is emotionally open while the guy is emotionally closed off" bullsh*t. The best romantic films over the years have been those which have similarly veered from that stale yawner trope as well. Pull from your memory files both THE WAY WE WERE and PRETTY WOMAN as examples - where both the female and male characters suffer from a degree of narrow-mind-ed-ness, ideological extremeism and "I'm always right"-ed-ness born of a hurtful past. And how in both films the characters becoming involved with one another causes them both to reach a more realistic and life productive "middle ground". Gary Marshall's PRETTY WOMAN (1990) even goes so far as to have it's characters (one a prostitute and one a heartless corporate raider) acknowledge that " ... We both f**k people for money". Damn, Skippy!


     SECONDLY Khan's rom-com is perceptive (and funny) as all get-out in observing and making comment upon how so many relationships are built upon, ... no, not those staples we all claim to cherish - y'know, like honesty, communication and such. But how so many are more often built upon a foundation of what is not said or acknowledged: upon assumptions of that which we presume (or at least hope) the other person is obviously aware. ALWAYS BE MY MAYBE hits this particular relationship phenomena / conundrum right on the head as few films I've seen have ever done. And THIRDLY ... . And yes I know "thirdly"'s not really a word. But anyway, THIRDLY ...

And, yup! Keanu shows up too ... in perhaps his most hilarious performance since 1989's PARENTHOOD

     Khan's film does one of the best jobs I've seen in recent years of (and, yeah, it does sound like contemporary PC "inclusion" cliche') celebrating a culture. But it does so without hitting you over the head with it as if we're sitting down to fourth period junior high school Social Studies class. Sasha and Marcus are Asian-Americans (both the children of immigrants) who - while totally American-ized - also second-naturedly practice family / traditional customs in the same way in which we all do even though we really seldom realize it. At the very beginning of the film, when grammer school latchkey kid Sasha arrives home to an empty rowhouse and lets herself in, the first thing she does is remove her shoes. But it's just in the natural flow of things. No big deal is made of it. And later while helping Marcus' mother prepare dinner (a major part of the impetus which drives her to be a successful chef later in life) she's shown how Koreans often use scissors to cut ingrediants. But again this and more are almost done in a peripheral / throwaway manner as to not draw attention to itself.


     And by not making a big deal of it, the fact that these Americanized kids still hold onto certain old country ethnic traditions does become a (subtle) big deal. It reminds me of how a beloved high school teacher of mine once said she preferred thinking of America not as a "melting pot" - where all of the elements merged into one single homgenously bland new element, but more a "salad bowl" - where each ingredient maintained it's own uniqueness, and because of this the whole had a much more interestingly / multi-layered flavor than it would possess otherwise. Khan's film nicely does the same.

     So, how's that for knocking one's socks off!? 

Vivian Bang steals the show as delightfully ditzy, wanna-be "Earth Mother", Jenny

     Many such cultural traditions and more are casually sprinkled throughout the narrative and character design of the film. And they, like a properly seasoned dish or perfectly fermented and aged spirit (forgive the analogy, but I spent half my life working in restaurants!) give the film a uniqueness - an ironic normalcy - in having them there but not drawing a distractingly self-aware "Look Ma, I'm directing and making an empowering cultural point" kind of attention to themselves. For my money this is the best and most effective manner of cinematic cultural inclusion rather than turning a culture, any culture!, into an iconic untouchable "something" which borders on the mythic rather than the everyday normal.


     And, oh yeah, along those lines there are also a nifty handful of good-natured (while simultaneously acerbic) digs at cultural appropriation, assimilation and ethnic profiling too. One of the funniest and most "ouch"-like occurs during a discussion between Sasha and her "Girl Friday" assistant Veronica (portrayed by stand-up comedian / podcast host Michelle Buteau) where they're discussing the stationary on which her new Asian themed restaurant will print it's menu, and Sasha / Wong says "Nah, use the rice paper, white people eat that sh*t up!".

     Those familiar with history will also grin at how the name of Marcus / Park's Bay Area band in the film, "Hello Peril", is a twist on the xenophobic phrase "Yellow Peril" used years ago by those who feared an "Asian invasion" of the West. So, yeah, some of the humor here is surprisigly / refreshingly of the non-politically correct and polite sort. But if you know anything of the stand-up of Ali Wong, and the writing, acting and music history of Randall Park, none of this will come as any shocking surprise. More than anything, however ...


     ALWAYS BE MY MAYBE is romantic as all hell. But whether or not one sees it as such (as do I) of course depends upon one's personal definition of "romantic". For me there's nothing in the world more romantic than an extended conversation. I can count on one hand the number of times in life I've gone on dates - usually dinner - then afterwards me and the woman just walked and talked, or we'd drive to some riverside area and talk and talk and talk into the wee hours. Those times when you're so unaware that you're so in synch with each other's personalities and mindsets that not only do the hours disappear as minutes, but you don't even notice you're finishing each other's sentences, and that you're getting all of the other person's (what you both thought were) obscure references. And, hey, how your often twisted senses of humor bounce off of one another in perfect rhythm.

Character actor fave James Saito (L) and Randall Park (R) as Harry Kim and son Marcus

     The best relationships (be they longer ones or regrettably shorter ones) begin this way. And to this day I remember those kinds as being most important to my formation as a well rounded adult. Because of this I've always found the most romantic films to be those which are able to somehow bottle that lightning of "there's nothing more romantic and sexy than an extended conversation". And as such to this day "dialog rhythm heavy" romantic films like ROMAN HOLIDAY, AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER, THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR, THE WAY WE WERE, WHEN HARRY MET SALLY, SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE, the underrated OSCAR AND LUCINDA, WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING, BEFORE SUNRISE and more are the ones which have always stolen my heart. There's a real life magic in that "dialog rhythm" thing, and Khan's film captures it to great effect. So much so that I just might have to rate this one as one of my ten all time fave rom-coms ever. Yup, it's that good.

     I'll wrap things up by tossing out quick "kudos!" to a fantastic (and a most naturalistic) cast which wonderfully brings it all to life. And particular shout-outs along those lines to actress Vivian Bang - who steals every scene she's in as the charmingly "new agey" Jenny, and Keanu Reeves - who has a grand 'ol time spoofing a ficticious version of himself ... as well as self-indulgent, uber sensitive and hyper self-aware Hollywood stereotypes.


     And, oh, if you're as old as I am you'll be thrilled to see characer actor fave James Saito - who's been a fixture in everything over the last 30+ years from voicing "The Shredder" in TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES to DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE, THE DEVIL'S ADVOCATE, LIFE OF PI, PEARL HARBOR, and TV movies and shows such as FAREWELL TO MANZANAR, M*A*S*H, T.J. HOOKER, MIAMI VICE, IRON FIST and more. Here he plays Marcus' father. And as such it's awesomely refreshing to see him finally get to play a normal guy. His performance here makes me truly hope he gets more roles along this line. Anyway ...

     In case you couldn't tell by now, I really REALLY dig this one! Sweet where it should be, and a little sour where needed (the end title rap song "I Punched Keanu Reeves" is the damned funniest thing you'll hear all year - haha!), Nahnatchka Khan's ALWAYS BE MY MAYBE is the perfect confection for those who want a little substance, intelligence ... and a bit 'a attitude ... to go along with satisfying that cinematic sugar craving.

     CEJ


________________________________________________

Vaulted Treasures is part of The GullCottage / Sandlot - a film blog, 
cinema magazine, growing reference library and online network 
"Celebrating The Art of Cinema, ... And Cinema As Art"

Explore The GullCottage / Sandlot @

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

"SHAFT" (2019): MAYBE NOT A "BAAAD MUTHA ...", BUT (SHUT 'YO MOUTH!) SURPRISINGLY GOOD! - by CEJ


________________________________________________



SHAFT
Dir. by - Tim Story
Written by - Kenya Barish 
& Alex Barnow
Based Upon the character John Shaft from the novel by Ernest Tidyman  
Prod. by - Jon Davis 
Director of Photography - 
Larry Blanford
Edited by - Peter S. Elliot 
Art Direction - 
Brittany Hites, 
Jeremy Woolsey
Music by - 
Christopher Lennertz

Running Time: 111 mins.
Released: 6/14/19 (US) 
Distributed by -
Warner Bros. (US)
Netflix (International)

GullCottage rating
(*** on a scale of 1-5)

____________________



    Hmmm? I guess you can call Tim Story's SHAFT "The MOONRAKER of SHAFT films" in that ... . Well, MOONRAKER is a helluva fast and furiously fun action / adventure film. It's just not a really good "Bond film", is it? In fact forget "good", it's really not a Bond film at all. And if you can get around that, and maybe not count it / think of it as a "Bond film", it's really a damn enjoyable ride. Kinda the same here. But only "kinda" as there surprisingly are, believe it or not, more than a few nuggets here which do feel like vintage SHAFT - both the John Singleton 2000 film (which I really love big time as it exercised the perfect balance in bringing the Ernest Tidyman / Gordon Parks sensibility into the new millennium with style, social relevance and supreme bad-ass-ed-ness) and the original trio of 70s era mystery / actioners.

John Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson) imparts fatherly and street wisdom to
MIT / FBI analyst son JJ "John Jr." (Jessie T. Usher) 

     As such when I personally heard another SHAFT film was in the works with Sam Jackson reprising his role (and with Richard Roundtree joining the cast again) I was thrilled. When I saw the first trailer, however, which for all the world seemed to turn the character into comedy fodder, I was heartbroken ... and pissed as hell! But you can't keep a good SHAFTer down (yes, I made up that word - we'll see if it catches on, haha!), and one couldn't not see it as curiosity is the mutha of all bitches to endure. Anyway, like I said, director Tim Story's new SHAFT is a heck of a lot better (and a lot less the 48HRS. / BEVERLY HILLS COP-style comedy / actioner) than expected. And there's one thing which saves it from "lame reboot hell".


In an unintended version of THE PARENT TRAP, Maya (Regina Hall) and John (Jackson) are brought together
again when their son JJ launches a personal investigation into the suspicious death of a childhood friend. 

     It isn't that the the story is very original (because it ain't - you can see every "surprise" a mile away) or that the action is eye-dazzling (because there's really nothing new here), or that some of the humor isn't forced (because there are more than one or two scenes where it feels like the writers are trying waaay too damn hard). No, what makes this SHAFT work as a crowd pleaser is the fact that you (and yeah, I know it sounds clichéd and corny) genuinely come to love this family - three generations of Shafts (Jackson, Roundtree and Jessie Usher) with estranged mom Regina Hall trying to shield her son from her ex's "bad influence" and dangerous lifestyle.


     The official plot has Hall back in the 1990s moving herself and infant son away from baby-daddy Shaft / Jackson's dangerous world when a reprisal against him from New York drug kingpin "Gordito" Carrera (portrayed by Jim Jarmusch stalwart Isaach de Bankole') strikes too close to home. Years later 20 something year old "JJ" (John Jr. - played by Usher) - now an MIT grad genius and FBI analyst who mistakenly believes his father abandoned him and his mother - comes calling. Or more accurately he comes attempting to guilt trip dad into helping him get to the bottom of why a childhood friend - a former soldier with a connection to a veterans' drug treatment center - himself died of a highly suspicious overdose.

Isaach de Bankole' as "Gordito" Carerra
     Needless to say (and like I said, you see it coming a mile away) father and son step into a LETHAL WEAPON / FRENCH CONNECTION-like quagmire of international drug smugglers and assassins hiding behind a government shield. And (surprise, surprise!, ... well, not really) "Gordito" is the mastermind behind much of it.

     So, yeah, that's the superficial plot - and one which is very Ernest Tidyman-like. But any man, regardless of age, race, social upbringing or whatever, will recognize this story's creative raison d'état as actually being the father & son, love & hate, dialog / banter between Jackson and Usher, which is, notwithstanding the laughs, on-the money and emotionally accurate as all hell. You recognize the (I hate this damn word, but) truthiness of the back-and-forth whether you've actually had such conversations with your own father or son, or you only wish you had.  It rings as alternately heartbreakingly bitter, sweet and very often hilariously genuine in the final wash. And as such it (not unlike the dialog badminton between Robert DeNiro and Charles Grodin in Martin Brest's MIDNIGHT RUN) puts this film over and makes us give a damn about what ultimately becomes of this trio. Well, ...  what becomes of this quartet.

X-MEN's Alexandria Shipp as Sasha - childhood friend and
unadmitted / unacknowledged lifelong love of JJ's life

     It's also very much reminiscent in some ways of the multi-generational ying & yang between Matthew Broderick, Sean Connery and Dustin Hoffman in Sidney Lumet's FAMILY BUSINESS - from which I honestly believe the script here co-written by Kenya Barish (creator of TV's BLACK-ISH) deliberately borrows more from than anything in Ernest Tidyman's original novels or Gordon Parks 1971 film. But it works - as stated earlier - "even though it's not really 'SHAFT'".

     There's another awesome effin' thing this film does rather subtly and intelligently (... and hilariously too!)? It's something few of the more negative reviews making the rounds have managed to notice ... or at least acknowledge ... in their narrow minded screeds as to why if the new film fails to ape the earlier ones, it's not a success.

A history of SHAFT (in film): SHAFT (1971), SHAFT'S BIG SCORE ('72),
SHAFT IN AFRICA ('73), SHAFT (2000)

     There's a wonderful recurring "undercurrent" debate as to whether Jackson's (and ultimately Roundtree's) Shafts are now embarrassing uber-macho anachronisms lost in the modern world, ... or among the last real men (of not only action, but of conscience, decisiveness and transparency) left in America after waves of sensitivity has turned most U.S. males into beings too fearful to do or say anything which may cause them to be "media shamed" ... even if what they may say or do is the right thing. In a clever way the film (at least as far as I read it) seems to come down on both sides, leaving it up to the audience to think about it but ultimately make up their own minds. I very much like that.

A history of SHAFT (in books) - among the seven SHAFT novels by Ernest Tidyman:
SHAFT HAS A BALL (1973), GOOD-BYE, MR. SHAFT ('73),
SHAFT'S CARNIVAL OF KILLERS ('74), THE LAST SHAFT ('75)

     And (of course!) there's the music ...

     We get the expected contemporary R&B and Hip Hop songs (and updated and remixed versions of classics) along with a score by BAD MOMS, RIDE ALONG, HORRIBLE BOSSES composer Christopher Lennertz which integrates Issac Hayes' iconic "Theme From SHAFT". I mean, how can we not, right? It would be musical sacrilege to leave it out. But (for me at least) Lennertz's score ends up being more functional than creatively memorable, in contrast to say ID4, CASINO ROYALE, BABY BOY composer David Arnold's score to John Singleton's 2000 SHAFT.


     It almost feels as though Lennertz was given the edict to "give us a score which does this and this and this, and nothing more or less", and he gave it to the producers / film makers, whereas (again, as it seems to me at least) Arnold's score didn't just obligatorily infuse the "SHAFT rift" whenever Jackson kicked someone's ass up and down the street. In fact Arnold's musical take felt less like a "SHAFT score" in particular, and more like an Issac Hayes, Johnny Pate, Dave Grusin, Herbie Hancock 70s era score in general done up with contemporary orchestra and production techniques. And in so doing it brought SHAFT perfectly into the high tech 2000s, but ironically did so while remaining faithful to the same smooth retro groove of the original films.

     Arnold's score holds more of a creatively loving "neo 70s" vibe (sounding like SHAFT, THREE TOUGH GUYS, TRUCK TURNER and David Arnold all at once - and film music aficionados will recall he did a similar "groove type thang" with Singleton's FOUR BROTHERS as well!), while Lennertz's feels a little more like "a good modern impersonation of a SHAFT score". Not bad at all, mind you. But just as with a Bond score, "not bad" isn't usually good enough as the music is such an integral part of what makes a genre-unto-itself like SHAFT,  Bond, STAR TREK, STAR WARS or ROCKY work.

A history of SHAFT (in comic books) by David F. Walker & Bilquis Evely - debuted Dec. 2014.

     All in all ...

     While I'm not a fan of the more forced comedic elements in this installment (though the ones which do work are priceless! - and Samuel L. Jackson has never in his career been more simultaneously cool and hilarious in verbally dishing them out), it is director Tim Story's primary strength as a "family film" maker which brings this chapter across the finish line with it's franchise honor intact. Now, that's not "family film" as in a "for all ages" one. Hardly here! SHAFT is deservedly "R" rated. But in some respects even that at times seems forced - with characters slinging "F" bombs around when they're really not necessary. And don't get me wrong, I'm no prude. I love a good expletive-laden cop flick. But as that's not really what this film has on it's mind, the at times over-the-top verbiage does occasionally start to border on needlessly insecure overkill. Uh, uh ...

Director Tim Story (L) on set with Jessie T. Usher

     Take a look at many of director Story's other films and you'll see what I mean about how their primary strengths (as well as his as a film maker) are when he puts under the microscope the various dynamics of family - functional and dysfunctional, blood-related or surrogate. And take another look at BARBERSHOP and those two underrated FANTASIC FOUR films of his - the ones with a pre-CAPTAIN AMERICA Chris Evans as Johnny Storm / The Human Torch - for proof.

     In that regard there's a quote I've always found accurate as all get-out - "There's no such thing as 'dysfunctional' family; for better and for worse there's just 'family'". And it is this sneaky / sly and (dare I say in regards to a SHAFT film?!) old-fashioned sensibility running quietly through it's central nervous system which in the end makes this, ehhh ... reboot? ... sequel? ... rift? ... on the original(s) surprisingly enjoyable.



     "Shut 'yo mouth!" We can dig it! ;)



                                                                                                                     CEJ

________________________________________________

Vaulted Treasures is part of The GullCottage / Sandlot - a film blog, 
cinema magazine, growing reference library and online network 
"Celebrating The Art of Cinema, ... And Cinema As Art"

Explore The GullCottage / Sandlot @

Thursday, April 4, 2019

THE ADVENTURES OF TOM FOOLHARDY: VOL 1 -THE $1 STORE LITERARY SOCIETY - by CEJ

"One glance at a book and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps dead for
1,000 years. To read is to voyage through time"
- Carl Sagan

________________________________________________

VAULTED TREASURES: MOVIES (and this time books) YOU NEVER KNEW ABOUT,
YOU FORGOT, ... OR YOU FORGOT TO LOVE MORE THE FIRST TIME AROUND!


     No secret, and sure as hell "no shame in our game", as to how I feel about the Best Buy / Wal-Mart / Rite Aid movie cheapie bin. It's a vaulted freakin' treasure trove which in a recent MOVIE SNEAK PODCAST episode we also referred to as a "cinematic well of the souls". One of the few remaining places where, since the local video store went the way of the Dodo, for less than the price of a hot dog at the movies a dyed-in-the-wool film fan can not only expose themselves to an "off the beaten track" film (or two) you won't even find on Netflix, Epix or Amazon Prime, but you can just own the damn thing too, and not ever have to worry again about it being deleted next month from a streamer's queue because they've reached the summit of their bandwidth or their contract with a particular studio goes kaput!

     Sadly for many of us the old-school book shop has in recent years faced a similar E.L.E.-like cultural demise. But if there's a "Cheapie Bin" version of a treasure trove of "off the beaten track" books one can delve into these days on a budget it's surely your local lowly Dollar Store.

"Books are a uniquely portable magic" - Stephen King /
THE NEVERENDING STORY by Michael Ende
(book 1983 / film 1984)

     Don't laugh! Over the years while picking up a few extra wine glasses for a party, gift wrap, glowing eyes for a Halloween display, pen lights or any of a dozen other things, I've come across more than a few damn good novels - hard covers, trades and paperbacks - for one slim buck which I later saw selling online or on a Barnes & Noble clearance table for $5 - $10.

     I grew up in libraries, book stores, flea markets and Friends Of The Free Library annexes. And to me there's nothing like "taking a flyer" on something you've maybe never heard of ... but it just sounds so damned fascinating. I'm all for streaming and eBooks and what have you. But there's nothing like browsing. And, uh, uh, sorry, "browsing" online isn't the same as taking the time to physically thumb through pages and volumes.

     There's a chill Zen magic in just sitting there, unbeholden to the clock (and that's what a damn good book blurb will do for 'ya), reading flaps or rear covers and deciding that "Ah, what the hell!" for a dollar you can afford to take the risk. In fact you'd be stupid not to. Think of it as a more mircocosmic (and much safer) version of skydiving, bungee jumping or leaping off a cliff into the waves.


"You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture; just get people to stop reading them" - Ray Bradbury /
THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak (book 2005 / film 2013)

     Reminds me too of working in a video store back in the 80s / 90s and doing "Bad Movie Night" - where we'd try to find what had to be the worst film ever made. But, no b.s., I swear 7 times outta 10 instead of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000-ing the evening's choice to dusty death, I and others ended up discovering something we'd love for the rest of our lives.


     The Paperback Exchange at the Willingboro Public Library, and the book shop at the no-longer-in-existence Pennsauken Mart were manna from lit heaven while growing up. Both where in South Jersey, though I'm sure you had your version of each as well. For example at the Mart you could pick up four or five paperbacks for a buck because they tore the covers off of  'em. Remember that? Anyway, nowadays at least once every month (and usually more often during the summer, go figure) I'll pick up a handful of books from the 'ol Dollar Store. I did so the other day, and the most recent haul consisted of ...


* THE JANUS AFFAIR - Never heard of this one before, but it seemed like a blast so I snagged it. Later looked it up and discovered it's the first entry in a series of cyberpunk-ish novels called THE MINISTRY OF PECULIAR OCCURENCES by New Zealand author Phiippa Ballantine. Sort of a Victorian era X-FILES it reminds me of Gavin Scott's early 1990s gem of a TV series THE SECRET ADVENTURES OF JULES VERNE. Sounds like a good time.

* THE PRINCE OF VENICE BEACH (never heard of it before either) is a 2014 "Y.A." novel by Blake Nelson. From what I understand it features sort of a male Nancy Drew type - a So Cal teen beach bum who becomes a local sleuth and ends up smack dab in the middle of the most Rubik's Cube-like of Raymond Chandler mysteries. Coolness!



* THE DEVIL'S TRAIL (2002) by Robert J. Conley. Another new title and author never before on my radar. But there's nothing like a good pulpy western fast read. And this 'un (sorry, couldn't help it!) at 250 pages looks like such a fun ride. It's about the "world's scrawniest gunslinger" who became an outlaw at 13 when he shot the man who shot his beloved dog, "Farty". Then after adventures on both sides of the law he ends up part of a posse out to collect the bounty on a legendary criminal. In the process he becomes a legend himself and, from what I gather, goes on to star in a few more novels.



* LAST PLANE TO HEAVEN (2014) is a collection of short stories by sci fi author Jay Lake. And what more can you add to that. In the words of the late great Stan Lee ... "'Nuff said!".

* ALL THE TIME IN THE WORLD (2011) is a collection of shorts by E.L. Doctorow.  And I'm seriously looking forward to this as I grew up a big time fan of Doctorow. Yeah, I'm old enough to have been around when both BILLY BATHGATE and even RAGTIME were first published. Check out their publication dates and do the math, and that's how old I am. Yeah, man, pass the AARP card and that container of Icy Hot; take it easy on the salt, ... and oh, you kids get off my damn lawn too while you're at it. Haha! Nah, seriously me and Doctorow go waaay back.


* THE NICE GUYS (2016). I love a good novelization as, if you get the perfect writer with their own literary history and voice, they'll bring a damned great vibe and / or spin to a screenplay-to-book-adaptation distinct from that of the film. Great examples include Orson Scott Card's novelization of James Cameron's THE ABYSS and pretty much anything by Alan Dean Foster (ALIEN, STARMAN, OUTLAND, CLASH OF THE TITANS).

     While I enjoy the early Shane Black scripted films such as LETHAL WEAPON and THE LAST BOY SCOUT, I absolutely love his seriously pulp inspired later day ones - which he also directed - like KISS KISS BANG BANG and THE NICE GUYS. They've got that patented Black attitude, but also a "dark maturity" which only comes with age. You can't fake that. While the earlier ones had say a smart-assed sense of humor woven into the characters, narrative and dialog, the more recent ones have a sly and cynical wit burned into their DNA which I find infinitely more interesting. Think the younger bad-asses of Tarantino's RESERVOIR DOGS and PULP FICTION as opposed to the more autumnal nature of JACKIE BROWN's older, more jaded, cynical (and yes, more human and humane) main characters. Anyway, ...

     Charles Ardai's a fascinating fellow in and of himself. And some might know / remember his name from various stories published in both the ELLERY QUEEN and ALFRED HITCHCOCK mystery magazines. But he's also the guy behind the "Hard Case Crime" imprint. Begun in 2004 it's a line of old-school 1930s / 40s era pulp-style novels - some of them reprints of classics and others new material by known authors imitatively writing in the old-school idiom. To date the hands-down most popular "Hard Cases" have been Stephen King's JOYLAND (2013) and THE COLORADO KID (2005) - the later of which was loosely adapted into the SyFy series HAVEN.

     As Shane Black is sooo in love with old-school Southern California-style pulp fiction, I'm looking forward to what Ardai brings to his THE NICE GUYS script while adapting it into straight hard boiled detective prose.

"We are of the opinion that instead of letting books grow moldy behind an iron grating, far from
the vulgar gaze, it is better to let them wear out by being read"
- Jules Verne

* BONUS * And oh, yeah, to date my two most prized "Dollar Store" Holy Grails ...


* ZORRO AND THE DRAGON RIDERS (1999 / by David Bergantino) Ultra bad-ass-ed-ness here as a wealthy landowner with political ambitions gets fed up with Zorro fighting for the people and giving the peasants hope. So, he hires from Japan four Ronin samurai warriors to track down and kill the masked avenger. They set a trap for Zorro (who is actually wealthy Bruce Wayne-like Don Diego de la Vega behind the mask) by burning and looting various poor villages - knowing that he'll show up to defend the citizenry. That aforementioned bad-ass-ed-ness (swordplay and all) then ensues.

* THE DIARY OF JACK THE RIPPER (1993 / Shirley Harrison - editor) Up until stumbling across this one about ten years ago, the scariest / creepiest books I'd ever read in my entire life were Vincent Bugliosi & Curt Gentry's HELTER SKELTER, William Peter Blatty's THE EXORCIST, and Whitley Strieber's COMMUNION. Hey, say what you will about Strieber and whether or not you think his story of alien abduction is horse pucky or not. His book is terrifyingly well written. And if it doesn't give you nightmares then you just ain't human. Anyway ...

     As said those three were the scariest books I'd ever read until THE DIARY OF JACK THE RIPPER. History considers "Jack" the first modern serial killer in that he frequently contacted the local press about his crimes. And years later a diary by him was found and "authenticated". "Authenticated" is in parentheses because the genuineness of the manuscript - purportedly by James Maybrick, a London textile merchant - remains debatable.


     One third of the book is the diary itself. One third is a provenance by various experts / historians proving the validity of the journal. And one third is a debunking by just as many experts and historians who feel the journal is magnificently realized bullsh*t. Whether it's genuine or not, it's a damn fascinating and genuinely unnerving read. Pissed off that I loaned out my Dollar Store copy to a friend and never got it back. So, I had to re-purchase it via Amazon for a bit more. Oh, well. What're you gonna do, right?
¯\_(ツ)_/¯

     At any rate considering I've run out of shelf space because of volumes by Clive Cussler, Amy Tan, Nicholas Sparks, Tom Wolfe and others, as well as a truckload of authors you've probably never heard of  ... And, oh, did you know that along those lines, in addition to a TITAN A.E. novelization there was a series of three prequel novels - each centered around the three main characters from Don Bluth's animated film? How awesome is that!? But that's something I never knew until finding one of them at a Dollar Store a few years back. Anyway, with all of that in mind ...

     I've no qualms in calling the local lowly Dollar Store a buried "Well Of The Souls" treasure for great (often underappreciated) literature.

     Set aside a few preconceived notions and dive in for yourself. You may be surprised at what awaits at the bottom of that chamber. As 'ol Sallah once said to Indy ...

     "You go first". 

"Reading is a discount ticket to everywhere" - Mary Schmich

                                                                                                                   CEJ

________________________________________________

Vaulted Treasures is part of The GullCottage / Sandlot - a film blog, 
cinema magazine, growing reference library and online network 
"Celebrating The Art of Cinema, ... And Cinema As Art"

Explore The GullCottage / Sandlot @

Saturday, March 23, 2019

THE STORIES OF "US" (2019): BRUCE LEE MEETS "THE TWILIGHT ZONE" IN JORDAN PEELE'S TERROR TRIP THROUGH GENRE HISTORY - by CEJ



________________________________________________



US
Dir. and Written by - Jordan Peele 
Prod. by - Jason Blum, 
Ian Cooper, Sean McKittrick, Jordan Peele
Director of Photography - 
Mike Gioulakis
Edited by - 
Nicholas Monsour 
Production Design -
Ruth De Jong

Run Time: 116 mins.
Release: 
3/8/19 (SXSW) 
3/22/19 (US)
Universal Pictures 
Monkeypaw Prods.

GullCottage rating
(***** on a scale of 1-5)

___________________


     In the 1973 adventure classic ENTER THE DRAGON, as the sampan filled with the world’s greatest martial artists chugs towards the tournament on Han’s private island, self-inflated bad-ass Parsons (portrayed by Australian Shotokan black belt legend Peter Archer) flexes and shows off a few fight moves in front of Lee (Bruce Lee) in an attempt to goad Lee’s ego into “throwing down” right then and there on the deck of the craft in order to find out “straight-up and right now” who’s the more bad-assed. Then, in what remains ironically one of the most famous scenes in all of action movie history, Lee explains to Parsons “The Art of Fighting Without Fighting”.


     He convinces Parsons that fistifcuffing on the deck of the ship perhaps isn’t the best thing to do. So, he suggest they take a small lifeboat-like dingy to the shore of a nearby island. Parsons agrees and steps down into the dingy, then Lee untethers the craft from the ship, watches Parsons float away into the distance, then goes about his earlier business. Hence “The Art of Fighting Without Fighting” is when one puts his or her ego in check long enough to realize that it isn't  always the most obvious first reaction action which is the most effective. The last time we used that analogy for a film was when describing Robert Zemeckis’ brilliant 2000 mystery-cum-ghost story WHAT LIES BENEATH to a friend as “The Art of Doing Hitchcock Without Doing Hitchcock”.


     In that film by putting the “I know my Hitchcock as much as anyone else, and I’ll prove it” part of his ego in check, and by not doing the “Brian DePalma thing” of specifically patterning shots after frames from earlier Hitch thrillers, but rather taking the soul of Hitchcock and “implanting” it within an entirely new 21st century filmic body, Zemeckis’ WHAT LIES BENEATH ironically became the most faithful Hitchcock homage in years. Now, whew!, all of that to explain how in similar fashion Jordan Peele, after the stunning success of his 2017 horror / satire GET OUT, had a lot to prove on his sophomore outing. But instead of succumbing to the ever-so-tempting “Look, Ma, I’m directing!” instinct, with the gleefully creepy US he puts his ego on hold, crafts a multi-layered chiller diller, and gives us one of the best “evil doppelgänger” yarns ever in the history of a genre visited before by the likes of Harlan Ellison, Rod Serling and other such titans of weird fiction.

     Sorry for the few run-on sentences there. But at the same time not so sorry as this one's got us stoked because quite simply you can’t be a hack and keep company with folks like Ellison and Serling. And while not trying to compete with or imitate any such literary or filmic icon, Peele ironically - not unlike Lee and Zemeckis - more than holds his own with them, and at times (forgive the sacrilege) might even excel past them with a clever piece of cinema grimoire both familiar and startlingly unique for the era in which, and for which, it was created.


     US doesn’t seek to invent a new genre. Nor does it seek to ape one down to the letter either. Rather it sets out to re-introduce a classic (if more obscure) sub-genre to a younger audience in modern fashion - thus turning said younger audience into fans of the original material, … which it’s kinda like and not like at the same time. You follow? Yeah, we know it's a little weird sounding. But it makes sense. In fact in that regard US the film is in some respects a lot like the doppelgängers who show up to torment their physically (and quite possibly psychologically) twin family.

      This is a no spoilers review, so we won’t allude to anything you haven’t already surmised from the trailers, clips, TV spots or cast interviews on various talk shows. US opens in 1986 where, after wandering away from her family during a beach trip to Santa Cruz, 10 yr. old Adelaide Thomas finds her way into a carnival’s hall of mirrors, and is traumatized by meeting a horrific exact living double of herself. Unable to verbalize the terror, she, not unlike an assault victim, silently carries the trauma into adulthood - where her present day self is portrayed by 12 YEARS A SLAVE and BLACK PANTHER‘s Lupita Nyong‘o.


     Adelaide has managed to keep her psychological / emotional demons at bay and away from her family for her entire adult life. That is until during a new trip to the same beachside community the unspeakable springs to life four times more terrifying than before as not only her evil double returns as an adult, but so do those of her husband Gabe (Winston Duke), daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and son Jason (Evan Alex) - all of them for some unknown reason violently intent on taking the places of the real family. And from this point the TWILIGHT ZONE-ish version of the $54,000 DOLLAR QUESTION becomes  “Are the evil doppelgängers of supernatural origin, strange clone-like physical origin, are they from another parallel dimension, or (like something out of a Shirley Jackson novel) a product of one or more of the family members’ inner psyches projecting themselves into our reality in corporeal form?”.


     US interestingly answers that question for the audience halfway through the film then makes an intriguing - if not entirely successful - course change into becoming another kind of film during it’s second half which raises an entirely new set of questions for the audience to brain tease it's way through. As for that second half we say “If not entirely successful” because (for our money anyway) in such a horror thriller very often less is much more as the questions and freakish answers which each individual audience member comes up with in the cinema of their own minds is usually infinitely more fascinating and terrifying than anything a filmmaker can explain or physically show. This isn’t always a bad thing. Think of Steven Spielberg’s JAWS - where the first half is a straight up horror film, and the second half becomes an adventure story, and both work like gangbusters.

DUEL (1971)

     But also consider Steven Spielberg’s earlier 1971 tv movie DUEL - released outside the U.S. as a feature film where in some versions you actually see a driver’s hands, feet, etc. in the cab of the marauding 18 wheeler hell-bent on turning motorist Dennis Weaver into canned road kill. This as opposed to the original tv version where we never saw inside the cab, and never knew if there was a madman behind the wheel or if the vehicle was powered by some supernatural Theodore Sturgeon or Stephen King-like entity possessing it and turning it into a killing machine on wheels. By the way, Spielberg has gone on the record stating that he himself prefers the version of DUEL where you don't see inside the cab.

     Peele’s explanation for what's going on (well, kind of a partial explanation, anyway) is freakishly intriguing to be sure, but it’s nowhere near as fever dream scary as when we have no idea - or even a guess - whatsoever, and we as an audience are hopelessly trapped in what Rod Serling’s opening TWILIGHT ZONE narration famously described as that land of the imagination “between light and shadow”, “between science and superstition” and “between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge”. That’s a damned scary place, but an intellectually fascinating one at the same time. And writer / director Peele seldom misses a beat in wringing every single drop of sweat from our pores, and keeping every single electro pop of brain energy a’burnin’ in our noggins as we try to figure out this wild cinematic world he’s plopped us smack dab down into the middle of. It's helluva fun ride.


     The TWILIGHT ZONE analogy is entirely apropos as, not only will Peele’s new re-imagining of Serling’s venerable series begin its run on CBS’ All Access steaming service in a few weeks. But because Peele has also acknowledged how the original 1960 TZ episode “Mirror Image” (written by Serling, directed by John Brahm, and starring Vera Miles - the one where she encounters an exact double of herself in a bus station) was the primary inspiration for his film just as another TZ episode, Richard Matheson’s “Little Girl Lost”, was the creative first spark which brought Spielberg and Tobe Hooper’s POLTERGEIST into existence.

     The great thing about US and POLTERGEIST, however - in keeping with the Bruce Lee “Fighting Without Fighting” edict, is that they don’t redo the original stories and try to pretend they’re new - y’know, in the way that INTO THE STORM pretended it wasn’t a carbon copy of TWISTER, SELF-LESS acted like it wasn’t John Frankenheimer’s SECONDS with a new coat of paint, or INTO THE BLUE (Xeroxing THE DEEP), PROUD MARY (a connect-the-dots retread of Cassavetes’ GLORIA) and numerous other films of late have been “trying to smoke it passed audiences“. Uh, uh! Hell, US refreshingly isn’t even beholden to the (admittedly entertaining) Quentin Tarantino / Brian DePalma “food processor” brand of cinema either.

     Y'know, that thing where a number of scenes are reproduced from classic films (sometimes even down to costumes, camera angles and music) yet strung together into an entirely new film. Along those lines take a look and take note of DePalma’s “Odessa Steps” sequence as realized in THE UNTOUCHABLES, Uma Thurman’s yellow Bruce Lee GAME OF DEATH jumpsuit in KILL BILL, as well as the angle and editing of KILL BILL’s hospital sequence (lifted from Frankenheimer’s BLACK SUNDAY), the design of it’s “House Of Blue Leaves” battle climax setting (lifted from Sydney Pollack’s THE YAKUZA), and the very “slave to bounty hunter to vengeful hero” plot of 2012’s DJANGO UNCHAINED - a stringing together of the plots of the three 70s era Fred Williamson revisionist westerns THE LEGEND OF NIGGER CHARLEY (‘72), THE SOUL OF NIGGER CHARLEY (‘73) and BOSS NIGGER (‘75). For as much as we love DJANGO UNCHAINED, the fact is it's very much a combined "Reader's Digest" version of those three films with a hip 21st century attitude.


     Make no mistake, US is definitely a genre fanboy’s thematic Cuisinart version of a wet dream.  But it’s not a retread. And that’s a super-important and very noticeable difference. More like in the same way in which Peele’s earlier GET OUT was a modern day DNA transplant of THE STEPFORD WIVES, so is US the latest entry in the sci-fi / horror sub-genre of the age old evil doppelgänger yarn. And if it’s true that the most reworked story in cinema history is Dickens’ OLIVER TWIST - redressed and revisited as EMPIRE OF THE SUN, THE COLOR PURPLE, CLOCKERS, AN AMERICAN TAIL and more over the last century of film, then surely the doppelgänger tale, perhaps second only to the "paradox of time" story, is among the most revisited in the sci fi / horror realm.

Fetching the Fetch: "How They Met Themselves" by Dante Gabriel Rossetti -
watercolor version, c. 1860-64

     In addition to TZ’s “Mirror Image” some of the most popular and surely memorable incarnations of the doppelgänger sub-genre include the original STAR TREK series’ “Mirror, Mirror” (the one with the evil Kirk and Spock with the goatee - remember that one?), one of the best of Irwin Allen’s original LOST IN SPACE episodes - 1967’s “The Anti-Matter Man” (where a rift in the timespace continuum causes an evil Robinson family and robot to slide through and battle the good ones), and one of the most gripping episodes of 80s era television period - genre or not: the 1985 debut episode of the revamped TWILIGHT ZONE series, “Shatterday”, based on a story by Harlan Ellison, starring Bruce Willis, and directed by Wes Craven.

(Top to bottom) HOW THEY MET THEMSELVES
THE TWILIGHT ZONE - "Mirror Image" (orig. airdate 2/26/60),
LOST IN SPACE - "The Anti-Matter Man" (orig. airdate 12/27/67),
STAR TREK - "Mirror, Mirror" (orig. airdate 10/6/67)

     All of those stories - each damned clever and witty in their own right - aren’t rips of one another, but rather like the OLIVER TWIST reworkings are all to greater or lesser degree based upon the original Irish folk legends of the Fetch more than anything else. So, yes, Peele’s film does doff its cap to what came before. And, hell yes!, in parts it feels like a deliberate “Cinematic Easter Egg Hunt to End All Easter Egg Hunts”. For example in the very first scene / opening shot we notice four VHS video tapes strategically placed alongside an 80s era television set - three store bought tapes and one home recorded one. And if you’re familiar with the plots of the movies on the three store bought tapes it’ll give you a little heads-up as to some of US’s upcoming narrative elements.



     If you’re also familiar with other 70s era films (those of Peele’s formative inspirational years) like the NIGHT STALKER tv movie sequel THE NIGHT STRANGLER, THE REINCARNATION OF PETER PROUD, DON’T LOOK NOW and Philip Kaufman’s remake of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, then there are additional specific scenes in Peele's film which will surely make you grin with a sense of “insider joke” familiarity every bit as much as they made us grin like big goofballs. So, yeah, Peele’s film is a horror film with something in it for everyone, especially the genre fan. But once again it acknowledges a love of these films - functions as a living stroll down horror memory lane (if you will) - without blatantly ripping off what it sees on the side of the road and trying to pass it off as it’s own. It acknowledges what came before but says, “Let’s take the DNA of that and not create a clone, but an entirely new being with it’s own voice and personality (it’s own soul if you will), but which very much remembers where it‘s DNA came from”. And, oh yeah, on the “horror” subject …

Rolling Stone - February, 2019

     No "if"s, "and"s or "but"s, US is a bonafied horror film. In a January 2019 interview with Rolling Stone’s Peter Hiatt, writer / director Peele flat out acknowledged that after the “Is it a horror film or a thriller?” (as if one film can’t be both) “genre confusion” of GET OUT, what he wanted to do next was a no-holds-barred, flat out “’spill your soda’ scary” (his words, not our’s) horror tale. And that’s what we get.

     US isn’t a perfect film. As mentioned earlier we found the first half more terrifyingly gripping than the second half (which is suspenseful). And even during that first half many of the scenes for our money run on a few extra beats too long. It’s as if Peele is so in love with the cleverness of his material in each scene he can’t bear to cut or lose any of it even for the sake of dramatic pacing. And as such there are a few lags in that first half because of it. At its best US plays like the crème of those lean and mean “one stab” / single-premise-with-multiple-permutations-and-possible-outcomes 70s era tv movies like THE NIGHT STALKER, BAD RONALD, DUEL, SATAN’S SCHOOL FOR GIRLS, THE NORLISS TAPES and THE HORROR AT 37,000 FEET. And when you think about it part of what made those films so to-this-day memorable (and still scary) was their brevity.


     US is great running at just under two hours. And it would have been even better had it come in closer to 95 or 100 minutes. Even those other 70s theatrical films like PETER PROUD and DON’T LOOK NOW - in which US is in obvious and understandable head-over-heels love - clock in at a shorter running time than Peele‘s. And part of their success is in how they don’t allow their premises to overstay their welcome. They dramatically know how to (as we used to say back in the day) “hit it then git it”. And US comes precariously close to forgetting that.  As for the execution of it's other craftsman-like details, Peele's rollercoaster is a cinema textbook masterpiece.

     The score by classical and contemporary composer & teacher Michael Abels is a freakish work of mad genius. It’s amalgam of chanting OMEN-like chorus, Afro-Cuban percussion and orchestra manages to simmer on the back burner of the audiences' memory long after exiting the theater. And the film's visual execution, concocted by Peele and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis (IT FOLLOWS, SPLIT, GLASS), is eerily unnerving and endearingly playful at the same time.


     The opening sequences in 1986 are filmed in almost CHARLIE BROWN / E.T.  childhood-point-of-view fashion with the camera seldom rising above the height level of young Adelaide, and the adults mostly seen from the waist down until leaning over into the frame to converse with our young protagonist. It's both cute and creepy at the same time. Then later there’s (quite cleverly) hardly a scene where the members of the cast are filmed in the center of the frame in classic fashion. The most prominent “center of the frame” traditional visual moment is during the scene we see in the various trailers and tv spots - when the “alternate family” first appears at the end of the driveway dressed in red coveralls and holding hands.

(L to R) Composer Michael Abels and
Dir. of Photography Mike Gioulakis
     Once the “alternate family” suddenly splits off in all directions like a macabre flock of birds breaking formation, all hell breaks loose both narratively and visually with characters both good and bad moving off to the left, right or bottom of the frame and throwing the visual balance slightly off this way and that. It’s barely noticeable consciously. But not unlike how in the old BATMAN tv series, whenever we were in the villains’ lair and the camera was always tilted, it here sends off a subconscious sonar “ping” to the audience that something’s not quite right.

     In light of all of this, and especially after the film’s final reveal, we admit the stuff about the running time and scenes in the first half being a bit too long emerge as minor quibbles in what is hands down one of the best modern day horror films to come along in years.

     As popular and well made as are the more recent slate of cinematic terror trips (films like INSIDIOUS, THE CONJURING, THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE, ANNABELLE, THE UNBORN, THE NUN, etc.), we’ve just never been as taken by them the way many others are because to us too many of them rely upon CGI trickery to create their nightmarish imagery. For us, in the same way in which watching actual stunt personnel doing actual feats of derring do as opposed to their obvious CGI counterparts doing the same, so do we believe that the film audience not only sees but feels the difference deep in their gut when freakish fever dream imagery is realized mostly in camera. There's a sense of unexplainable creepiness and dread in subconsciously knowing that actual physical reality is somehow being twisted right before our eyes. And this is part of the reason why films such as THE EXORCIST, the original THE OMEN and THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, and even many of Universal's horror hits of the early 1900s like DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN still somehow remain timeless today. It's not just nostalgia. They've somehow managed to bottle psychological lightning and preserve it via the physical cinematic arts. Peele's film does the same. 


     It's easy to forget how small scale some of the creepier TWILIGHT ZONE, OUTER LIMITS and NIGHT GALLERY episodes were. Most of them took place on maybe three sets at most, featured but a handful of actors (usually no more than four or five main speaking roles), and were shot with only one or two cameras usually locked into place, or at best on short-tracked dollies. But the ideas were so big the eye forgot to notice the lack of extravagances and uber technical razzle dazzle. The story, characters and director’s sense of style are what were king. And there was a Bruce Lee-like confidence in that alone for the film and filmmaker to feel secure in not having to ape or imitate what came before, or to slam the audience up against the wall in the cinematic / sensory equivalent of a gang rape in order to provoke an emotional response.

At the US South by Southwest Festival premiere: (L to R) Writer / Director Jordan Peele and cast -
Lupita Nyong'o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex, Tim Heidecker, Elisabeth Moss

     While among the best of modern day horror, Jordan Peele’s US is at the same time a throwback to the days when “the idea” ruled. And in our present era where every other week rolls out yet another zombie or vampire tv series or flick - such to the point that many start to look and feel the same - it’s refreshing to see a genuinely creative and lovingly nostalgic spin on an age-old genre without resorting to simply ripping off what came before and claiming it as "the new cinematic thang". While faced with an impressive and daunting history of similarly themed films and series created by some of the legends of the genre, with US Jordan Peele has staked his own worthy claim as artist provocateur par excellence in “the Art of Terrifying An Audience With An Evil Doppelgänger Tale … Without Doing The Stereotypical Evil Doppelgänger tale”.

     We think Bruce Lee would approve.  ;)


                                                                                                                CEJ

________________________________________________

Vaulted Treasures is part of The GullCottage / Sandlot - a film blog, 
cinema magazine, growing reference library and online network 
"Celebrating The Art of Cinema, ... And Cinema As Art"

Explore The GullCottage / Sandlot @