Us behind-the-scenes

(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything. In this edition: Jordan Peele’s Us explains itself too much and that’s a big problem.)

Note: Us hits Blu-ray and DVD today, but this article assumes you have already seen it. Spoilers ahead.

Mysteries are hard to write. A good mystery needs a compelling opening hook and a satisfying or shocking conclusion, but more importantly, it needs to parcel out the right amount of connecting information, at the right pace. Can the audience follow the story? Do they get ahead of the characters, or solve the clues right alongside them? Do they get confused? Is that intentional or unintentional?

Jordan Peele’s Us is horror first and social commentary second, but it contains more than a little mystery. Opening with young Adelaide discovering a “mirror” version of herself, it continues to puzzle the audience with the years-later appearance of Adelaide’s complete mirror family. Mirror Adelaide, labeled Red in the credits, calls these people the Tethered, and her exact origins and motivations are revealed over the rest of the film. Twists abound.

Us’ script is structured in a way that seems designed specifically for today’s age of YouTube explainer videos, “Things You Missed” articles, and Reddit fan-theory boards. And yet, even understanding that the film demands active, participatory thought from its audience, the film’s story is missing clarity. But Us’ issue isn’t that it doesn’t explain itself enough.

Rather, Us explains itself too much.

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aladdin clips

(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything. In this edition: the live-action Disney remakes feel ashamed to be musicals and that’s a problem.)

Indulge me in a bit of a thought experiment. Think, for just a second, of the films of the Disney Renaissance. Films like Aladdin, The Lion King, and Hercules. Leave aside what you think of these movies — maybe your favorite is The Lion King, or maybe it’s Beauty and the Beast. Think about these movies, and specifically conjure up one thing that these movies share, a common element that binds them. While the Renaissance-era films are quite beautifully animated (primarily by hand), what really unites them is their music. These films all feature memorable, show-stopping, Broadway-style songs. You may not love them all, but you know them.

Now think about the recent wave of live-action remakes. And think about the new Aladdin.

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(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything. In this edition: Quentin Tarantino is many things…including a writer of amazing female characters.)

Director Quentin Tarantino recently came under scrutiny for refusing to answer a female journalist’s question about the number of lines he wrote for Margot Robbie in his latest, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. He “rejected [her] hypothesis” that he neglected to write enough for Robbie’s part. Robbie defended the decision, saying that she enjoyed working within the restraints of a low-dialogue role.

While Tarantino is by no means perfect, it feels disingenuous to call him out on a lack of dialogue for Robbie when he has written some of the more complex and powerful female characters in American cinema. The performers entrusted with these characters brought them to life. They don’t shy away from the more difficult aspects of their characterizations. Their flaws make them relatable, and ultimately more human.

My own relationship with Tarantino’s filmography is complicated. I cannot reconcile Tarantino endangering Uma Thurman on the set of Kill Bill: Volume 2. I worry about his knowledge of Weinstein’s predation. I have serious concerns about how he treats people both on-set and off. Despite my conflicting feelings on the man himself, it’s impossible to deny the impact his characters made on my life. By writing female characters who were flawed, traumatized, and stuck in dangerous hyper-masculine worlds, he gave me characters whose trajectories felt more like my own. Tarantino’s women were survivors, and I was just learning how to be one.

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(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything. In this edition: people say they want original and fresh movies and, well, they seem to be lying.)

How many times have you heard people complain about Hollywood not having any new ideas? In my case, it’s “a lot.” You hear it especially in the context of blockbusters, where everything’s the third or fourth or ninth entry in a long-running franchise. But what this complaint misses is that original blockbusters (or attempted blockbusters) do get released, on a fairly regular basis. They’re typically not significantly worse than many franchise films, but they’re different. They’re unfamiliar. And more often than not, they crash and burn at the box office.

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(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything. In this edition: non-binary actor Asia Kate Dillon plays a non-binary character in John Wick: Chapter 3 and that means more than many people may realize.)

As a non-binary person who loves cinema, I’ve resigned myself to the reality that I won’t ever see my gender represented in mainstream popular culture. There have been major advances in binary transgender representation – particularly for trans women, though there’s still a long way to go there too – but for those of us who don’t fit neatly into the categories of men and women, there isn’t a whole lot out there specifically meant for us. I find myself identifying with the masculinity of some characters, the femininity of others, and the gender-bending expressions of specifically queer art often scratches an itch for seeing gender-nonconformity represented in the works I’ve spent my life adoring and analyzing. But I never get to see a person who looks like me in the artistic medium I love, at least not without some major caveats.

But John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum offered me something new. But we’ll get there in a moment.

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Avengers Endgame - Thor

(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything. In this edition: no, Thor is not being fat-shamed.)

Avengers: Endgame does an outstanding job of depicting the trauma of failing the ones you love. Earth’s mightiest heroes not only have to deal with losing those closest to them after Thanos snaps his fingers and uses the Infinity Stones to wipe out half the living creatures in the universe, but they have to deal with failing the rest of the world too. That failure becomes even more heart-wrenching when they have to sit with that failure for five years, each of them dealing with the post-traumatic stress in their own way.

However, when it comes to the depiction of Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and how he’s grappled with the failure of not killing Thanos by going for the head in his attack with the new weapon Stormbreaker, some have been disappointed and even saddened. The Thor in Avengers: Endgame has gained a significant amount of weight, giving him a big gut that has been filled by an endless amount of alcohol. Some think the movie treats Thor’s new look like a nasty punchline, using fat-shaming to elicit laughter from the audience and ignoring the significance of his emotional trauma. But that’s not how I see it at all. Read More »

avengers endgame women

(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything. In this edition: Avengers: Endgame doesn’t honor its female characters in a way that actually carries weight.)

There’s no question that Marvel has a women problem. In the past decade and over the course of its 22 movies, only one of them was led by a woman, and one had a woman sharing the title. But the studio has been eagerly trying to make up for it in recent years, releasing Captain Marvel to critical and box office acclaim, and slowly introducing female fan favorites — some of whom would go on to get double billing in the big established movies.

As we headed into Avengers: Endgame, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was filled to the brim with strong, complex, rich female characters — some super, some not — who were on course to outshine even some of the male heroes. And with Marvel reportedly pushing for more female superheroes in front of and behind the camera, it is no surprise that the film would want to pay its respects to these beloved characters. But this is where the film stumbles.

Spoilers for Avengers: Endgame below.

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The Emperor in Episode 9

(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything. In this edition: one writer has a bad feeling about The Rise of Skywalker…)

The Star Wars: Episode IX trailer just blew up the internet, revealing some kick-ass action scenes, a stunning visual aesthetic, and a somewhat clunky title (Rise of Skywalker). The trailer as a whole was wonderful…until the end. At the tail end of all the exciting footage, a very familiar laugh was heard: that of Emperor Palpatine. And in case there was some doubt about what you heard, Palpatine himself – Ian McDiarmid  – came out on stage during the Star Wars Celebration, and asked to roll the trailer again in his Emperor voice. The crowd went wild. Everyone seems to be okay with this idea!

Except me.

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Shazam Body Issues

(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything. In this edition: Shazam! is a delightful movie about finding your ideal self – but it fails in one key way.)

Shazam! continues the onscreen DC Universe’s pivot to brighter, more joyful entertainment and it does it with a big, goofy grin on its face. Honestly, I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie that felt more genetically engineered to become the new favorite movie for every 12-year old in the audience. It’s funny and exciting and inspiring and just scary enough, recalling the studio films from eras when filmmakers realized that kids like to be tested, to have their bravery proven, at the movies. I am not the target audience for Shazam!, a movie made with kids in mind first, and that’s perfectly fine. Me enjoying it a great deal is just a warm and fuzzy side-effect.

But beyond being a thrilling superhero movie, Shazam! is blessed with a giant heart, one that it wears on its sleeve. Like any movie with a big heart, it has a message it wants to share. Unfortunately, Shazam!‘s message is one that is hindered by a single choice, one that will not matter to most people in the audience, but stuck out in a way that I have not been able to shake since I saw it. In the middle of one of the most upbeat, positive, and inspiring comic book movies I’ve ever seen is a single detail that reads not only false, but is genuinely dispiriting.

Naturally, this post contains major spoilers for Shazam! We have to journey deep into the third act to talk about this.

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(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything. In this edition: film festivals treat disabled attendees as an afterthought – and that needs to change.)

When it comes to the state of disability access, one thing is for certain: we are an afterthought. It’s remarkable to think that with all the ingenuity in architecture and discussions about representation that disability continuously falls through the cracks. I’ve lived as a wheelchair user my whole life and never felt limited until I started working as a film critic.

No, the nature of writing and seeing movies isn’t a problem. But as any writer will tell you, a key component of this job is going to film festivals. Festivals aren’t purely a means of seeing a hot new release months in advance, but present networking opportunities and greater access to events and people that help us do our job. When I first seriously started writing I knew festivals would be great to attend, but they come with a wealth of problems for me.

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