Monthly Archives: March 2019

We are our own worst enemy in ‘Us’


Picture this: I’m on my way out of the movie theater after a screening of Us. I go to the bathroom to wash off my popcorn-buttered hands. I purposely avoid my own eyes in the mirror. Why, you ask? Because Us has put me off of mirrors for at least a month. Thanks a lot, Jordan Peele.

But actually in all seriousness, thank you, Jordan Peele. Thank you for being a huge part of the recent American horror renaissance. Thank you for making horror films with exceptional intelligence, pacing, and craft. And thank you for not repeating yourself.

Us is not Get Out. I don’t mean that as an assessment of its overall quality. I mean that in terms of thematic material and message, the two films have very little room to be more different. Whereas Get Out wears its message on its sleeve, Us is much more ambiguous. It’s also much more of a pure horror film in that sense — the social commentary arrives in splashes, not waves.


Lupita Nyong’o gives a sensational double performance as Adelaide and Red, her malicious mirror image. Adelaide and her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) aren’t quite seeing eye-to-eye on their family beach vacation. She has some lingering memories of a disturbing event from her childhood, which occurred on the pier Gabe wants to visit. 

When Adelaide is reticent to share this past experience with her husband, I was reminded of other recent horror films which address Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, such as It Follows and It Comes at Night. Although PTSD is not necessarily this film’s focus, I found it significant that Adelaide’s memory and how she felt about it were key plot functions.

Soon after she tells Gabe her story, a family of four that look exactly like our protagonists appears in their driveway. After a struggle, the ‘real’ family is subdued, and Red lays out the ‘second’ family’s plan to Adelaide.


Red is quite an amazing creation by both Peele and Nyong’o. Her speech is croaky, stilted, almost as if she’s learning the words as she utters them. In the uncomfortable stillness he allows both characters to sit in, Peele creates a world in which we don’t know which end is up, and that unease heightens when we discover more doppelgängers of other people. 

As the evening starts to unravel into dawn, the family is dragged into a world of strange ritual and even stranger backstory. The climax of this film is monumentally impressive: impeccably choreographed, filmed, and edited to keep you on your toes even after the big reveals.

Us has been criticized for having somewhat of a ’non-ending.’ But I’m kind of a sucker for ambiguous endings. I love films that stick with me; that leave me mulling and musing for days. Although I’m still terrified of mirrors, thanks again, Jordan Peele, for crafting a truly unique horror experience that I will cherish for years to come. 

-George Napper

‘Leaving Neverland’ is the most disturbing film of the year

“You don’t need it. All you need is me.”
-James Safechuck, recalling Michael Jackson’s answer to whether he should attend film school


It’s difficult to write about something this harrowing. I feel that Leaving Neverland is among the most disturbing films I’ve ever seen, for a variety of reasons. But it is vital to the broader cultural and social discourse, both in the way it talks frankly about the ways in which pedophiles groom children and families, and in the way that its subjects who discuss such things don’t know quite how to process that this grooming has occurred. It is a snapshot of a moment past and present; one in which celebrities were and one in which they are still much too much larger than life.

In Leaving Neverland, Wade Robson and James Safechuck bravely tell their stories about how Michael Jackson allegedly sexually abused them as children at Neverland Ranch and other locations. Director Dan Reed wisely keeps the 4-hour recanting focused, linear and straight-faced. 

For the first 30 minutes of the first 2-hour installment, however, we see a benign portrait of a mega-famous and mega-eccentric superstar. What we see and hear of Michael here is totally in line with his unchallenged status in the 1980s. Once the bomb is dropped, though, there’s no going back.

Almost systematically, according to the victims, children were seduced by Jackson’s elaborate home, theme park, and an overwhelming amount of playtime and junk food. Jackson convinced family members of his affection for them and their children, and turned himself into a part of the family. He was an honorary Safechuck, even helping the family purchase a new house. His proximity to and effect on the Robson family resulted in their dissolution as a family unit, leading to the eventual death by suicide of Wade’s father.

I refuse to write about the specific lewd acts Jackson is accused of doing in this documentary, not because I feel any sort of special protectiveness towards the man or his legacy as an artist, but because the acts described are truly disgusting.

Michael Jackson with 10 year old Jimmy Suchcraft on the tour plane

Instead, what I think is more relevant in the broader discussion this movie advances is the notion of unchecked celebrity. If last year’s Whitney and 2015’s Amy were about how celebrity culture can negatively impact the person on stage, Leaving Neverland is about the impact of celebrity culture on everyday people.

It is not normal for an unrelated grown man to inject himself into a family’s daily life. It is not normal for someone who has no children to have a theme park at which he or she hosts children and sleeps in the same bed with them. It is not normal, no matter how much clout or prestige someone has, for someone to never be questioned about this kind of activity. It is not normal, and it is not okay.

And it could happen again. 

We are still in the eye of the storm on these issues, especially in Hollywood. Whether or not you believe the interviewees in this documentary, it is never okay to groom children, and if it appears that someone is, that person should be questioned. For decades, Michael Jackson’s celebrity kept him off the hook for so much of his negative impact on people’s lives. 

If we continue to buy into rampant celebrity worship, all of these issues will get worse before they get better. 

No one is above the fray. 

-George Napper

OSV (On Second Viewing): Captain Marvel

Welcome to “On Second Viewing” or “OSV,” a feature where I will dissect films which I feel differently about — positively or negatively — on second viewing than I did the first time around, be they recent releases or treasured classics.

Captain Marvel has been at the center of some cultural consternation before and since its release this past Thursday. I first saw it Thursday night, and saw it again with family Saturday. I felt positive but tepidly so the first time around. But as I listened to others’ criticisms of the film, I found myself defending it more and more. I still didn’t quite know why. The second time around, I realized there were a few key reasons why I now consider it my favorite Marvel movie after Captain America: Civil War.



It’s not fussy about its deeper comic lore

I think it’s incredible that we are at this point in such a serialized franchise. It now makes sense to me that Captain Marvel comes so late in the game. Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) is technically the first avenger (meaning the first person to be recruited by Nick Fury), but had we begun back in 2008 with the Kree homeworld she comes from and their war with the shapeshifting alien Skrulls, the attempted Marvel Cinematic Universe would have been laughed out of the multiplexes. It’s a huge credit to Marvel Studios President and producer extraordinaire Kevin Feige that he realized a certain level of trust had to be built to get to the more out-there characters. Even if there was never a Bible for the MCU, it comes off as a flawlessly executed business plan.

So after 10 years of MCU films, many of which are origin stories, we have an origin story in Captain Marvel which has to condense a lot of new information and convince us of its lead’s nearly unlimited power.

Part of the reason I didn’t see the film as successful in both areas the first time around has to do with its visual language as compared with other films in the MCU. For example, when I saw Avengers: Infinity War, one of the things I was knocked out by was its wide shots, in which we see so much chaos going on that the scenes started to look exactly like panels of a comic book to me. The less hi-res detail I saw, the more I was reminded of an ink-and-color graphic novel, where the visual language is unencumbered by computer-generated graphics and the only limits are the artists’ imaginations.

Captain Marvel directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck made their bones in the industry with indie darlings like Half Nelson and Sugar. A lot of their films, as most obviously evidenced in Sugar, are about disillusioned people trying to find their place in the world. They tend to be close-up, detailed portraits of these characters. In my opinion, that’s why Captain Marvel is perceived to have a lack of depth. The way Boden and Fleck structured Carol’s origin — in which she has to figure it out herself — not only fits their sensibilities, but is a much less obvious way to reveal her specific origins as a superhero. Because it’s more character-focused, the film lacks a certain blockbuster excitement factor that it may have been widely hoped it would have. No chaotic wide shots, no real aping of comic panels; it’s just a nice, gentle quasi-buddy cop movie with Danvers and Fury.

But that’s why I admire it in the context of the MCU. We are at a point with this franchise where a movie like this totally makes sense. Where you can have the Kree and the Skrulls and intergalactic conflict and mix it with a character-driven story and the audience doesn’t bat an eye. The tone work has been put in for so long that we trust these storytellers, and it’s acceptable to us that a whole new part of this world is introduced quickly and briskly.


I get why people don’t like the amnesia storyline, but I’m cool with it

In context of Boden and Fleck’s career and their style, this story totally makes tonal sense. It also works because had we seen Carol take the Air Force mission, be kidnapped by Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), and then come to remember her life on earth in that order, we would have known all the secrets ahead of time and her attempts to discover her full power would be 100% boring and pointless, because we would have already known everything there was to know. There would be no story to tell.


Young Samuel L. Jackson is pretty much the greatest

I know it’s been praised to death at this point, but my goodness, the de-aging effect on Sam Jackson is amazing. His performance is great, and it was great to see a pre-Avengers Fury. His ‘Mr. Postman’ bit was my favorite part.


Female friendship

The movie never gloats or tries to act like it’s especially important because it features a lot of female leads, it just has them and they’re well-written and fun. I especially enjoyed the dynamic between Carol and Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), her best friend from the Air Force. Because of Carol’s disappearance and new personality as ‘Vers,’ their initial scenes together in the film are not exactly buddy-buddy, and I liked how they grew closer again after that long absence. It’s an interesting conflict to give any characters, and I also appreciated that the conflict stemmed from their careers and the resolution of their conflict contributed to the larger plot and Carol’s character development.

Also, I love how the military misogyny is just glossed over. If the film were structured in a more standard way, I have a feeling that would have been a larger scene. But mainstream audiences have already seen all that stuff, and we obviously understand how bad toxic masculinity can be, so it’s just quickly mentioned and we get it and we move on. Nice touch. The film treats us as friends and equals in this instance rather than lecturing us.


Attention to detail in Kree and Skrull fights

I loved everything about the fight on the metro train after ‘Vers’ first lands on Earth. I liked that neither her nor the Skrulls knew everything about Earth, but not only in a cultural sense with the 90s references, but with certain facts about life on Earth. There are several examples, but one I especially loved was when ‘Vers’ and a Skrull are fighting on top of the train, the Skrull is running from her and, not knowing any better, grabs the train’s electric arc connection to the overhead power line, giving him an extreme shock. It’s a tiny touch, but one I appreciated as a great little piece of world-building.

In conclusion

Captain Marvel is nowhere near a perfect film, but I’m a big fan of it. I totally understand the genuine criticisms of it, such as its exposition-stuffing and the fact that the amnesia-esque style of character development has been done. A lot. But I do rankle at the notion I’ve heard and read from some that this film has to somehow be the be-all, end-all of the MCU. That’s supposed to be Endgame. Or hopefully it will be. In the meantime, I’ll be seeing Captain Marvel again and singing ‘Mr. Postman’ on the way out.


-George Napper