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Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
Directed by Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman, Bob Persichetti
Prior to 2018, the character of Miles Morales might have been foreign to all but the most well read comic book aficionados. Morales, an Afro-Latino teenager, debuted in the Ultimate Marvel comic series as Peter Parker’s successor to the Spider-Man legacy in 2011. Unlike Parker, however, Morales never received big-screen treatment. Just as viewers and critics began to burn out on Spider-Man origin stories, directors Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman, and Bob Persichetti announced Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, a computer-animated film focused on the rise of Miles Morales. With the recent momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement, it seems more important than ever to re-examine films that utilize Black or ethnic culture to tell a story, and the cinematic story of Miles Morales feels like one of the most poignant in years.
My first viewing of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse amounted to an amalgam of adrenaline and awe. As a Latina, I connected deeply with Miles Morales, his family, and his struggles, but as someone familiar with Morales’ story, it became obvious to me that the creative talent behind Spider-Verse poured their hearts and souls into rendering Morales’ previously obscure world onto the big screen. With nearly 150 animators and a slew of musical and artistic talent at its helm, Spider-Verse boldly experiments with myriad cinematic and audiovisual styles that differentiate it even from other animated films. Daniel Pemberton’s score, for instance, blends cinematic orchestration with techno whines, electronic beats, and contemporary hip-hop and R&B while the narrative unfolds through a mix of computer animation, traditional comic styling, and moody environments. The film’s reliance on blending various musical, narrative, and artistic techniques seems particularly appropriate for Miles Morales, who lives a culturally blended life. Such considerations elevate this film above its peers, animated or otherwise.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’s narrative components outshine even its technical achievements. From the outset, Morales’ experiences as a young man of color in New York shape the film. Morales never explicitly mentions the hardships of being biracial in fictionalized-but-familiar America, but he faces a series of challenges unique to people of color. Morales has trouble adjusting to his new boarding school and tries to sabotage his academic career all while attempting to remain close to his streetwise uncle, whom Miles’ stern, policeman father considers a poor influence. Most importantly, when saddled with the identity of Spider-Man—previously held by the white and beloved Peter Parker—he realizes the folly of trying to act as Parker’s replacement. Into the Spider-Verse skirts around identifying race as one of the film’s most important narrative elements, but even Morales’ unexpected power of invisibility recalls Ralph Ellison and the importance of visibility for people of color. Although Spider-Verse occasionally waters down elements of social justice, it never feels exploitative of Black or Afro-Latinx culture; on the contrary, many viewers might feel seen by the film’s understanding of interracial families, biracial struggles, and the power of visibility.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a phenomenal film but not a perfect film. For a movie about growing up Black and Latino on the streets of New York, Morales has few Black or Latinx friends. The film builds its other diverse characters around tropes or relegates them to silence: for instance, Morales’ Korean roommate, Ganke Lee, plays a significant role as Spider-Man’s sometimes-sidekick and best friend in the comic books, but he becomes entirely mute in Spider-Verse. Likewise, Peni Parker becomes a mish-mash of Japanese pop culture tropes despite her importance as one of the few Japanese American superheroes. Her anime-inspired style might have sufficed to underscore the role that Japanese pop culture plays in her design, but she spends most of the film flouting her computer skills, piloting a mech suit, and fighting in a schoolgirl outfit. Japanese audiences received Peni Parker warmly, but the film does not feature nearly enough Japanese writers or artists in its credits to justify the use of so many tropes.
Even so, the film does make other efforts to represent diverse characters healthily. The narrative becomes refreshingly gender inclusive by renaming “Spider-Men” to “Spider-People,” and avoids ageist pitfalls by giving Aunt May a significant role as the hero’s tech-savvy coordinator and gadget inventor. The Black and Latinx characters in the film feel multidimensional and alive. Morales’ uncle has compelling, realistic complexity, Morales’ father learns and grows beyond the biases of his uniform, and Morales’ mother emphasizes the strength and resilience of Latina mothers without the sass that Hollywood usually tacks onto them. While the directors appropriately cast Black, Latinx, and Japanese voice actors and feature Black artistic and musical talent throughout the film and soundtrack, Sony Entertainment Films will hopefully ensure that characters like Ganke Lee and Peni Parker receive better treatment in future installations by diversifying their writers and directors and consulting with more authors and artists of color.
Despite its occasional missteps, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse serves as a modern benchmark of cinematic ingenuity. Viewers new to Spider-Man’s adventures will find themselves charmed by Miles Morales and the energetic ensemble around him, while those familiar with the franchise will find that the film’s artistic, musical, and narrative achievements have ushered in a timely and most welcome new era of Spider-Man.
University of California, Davis
Written and Directed by Bernard Rose
Candyman is a 90s cult-classic horror movie with a twist. Although most moviegoers expect to experience another generic slasher film, writer and director Bernard Rose subverts those expectations by crafting a film that tackles social and racial issues with an urban legend at its core.
The film follows the ambitious University of Chicago graduate student, Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen), and her friend and colleague Bernadette Walsh (Kasi Lemmons) as they conduct research for their thesis on local urban legends and modern, oral folklore. While interviewing freshmen and trying to keep her marriage together with her husband, Trevor Lyle (Xander Berkeley), Helen discovers the legend of Candyman (Tony Todd), a vengeful specter with a hook for a hand that cuts his victims from “gut to gullet.”
Candyman is a film adaptation of Clive Barker’s short story, “The Forbidden.” Unlike Barker’s story, which focuses on the lives of an impoverished Liverpool community, Rose centers on an African American housing project in Chicago known as Cabrini-Green—a real-life housing project. Cabrini-Green plays an essential part in Rose’s social commentary on housing project families and where the story of the Candyman originates.
The success of Mr. Rose’s film is in part to its leading actor Tony Todd as Candyman, the supernatural African American antagonist with a tragic past. Mr. Todd’s performance as the vindictive ghost with a hook for a hand is terrifying yet superlative. Todd delivers his lines with a husky, seductive voice that evokes respect and sheer terror all at the same time. Todd also excels in the physical demands of his role as Candyman that includes working with a hook, levitation, and kissing his co-star, Virginia Madsen, with a mouth full of bees!
Along with Todd, Ms. Madsen’s performance as Helen Lyle is memorable. Helen at the beginning of the film positions herself as the doe-eyed academic that minimizes the legend of Candyman as a figurative representation of inner-city violence than a fearsome boogie man. As the film progresses, so does Helen’s character. Although some might label Helen as falling victim to the “white savior” trope, it is through Helen that the unfair living conditions of the residences of Cabrini-Green become revealed. In addition, Helen never once in the film positions herself as superior to anyone. Instead, she sympathizes and attempts to understand the lives of the people in inner-city Chicago, unlike her African American friend, Bernadette, who fears the housing project for its association with gang violence and crime.
Bernard Rose’s commentary on urban legends is especially fascinating. Throughout the film, Rose plays with the idea if the Candyman exists or not. According to Helen’s husband Trevor Lyle, a professor at the University of Chicago, urban legends represent the “true unselfconscious reflection of the fears of urban society.” The audience, therefore, assumes that the Candyman is a mere fabrication. However, when Helen herself starts to doubt the existence of Candyman, he finally appears to her. Candyman explains to Helen that he needs followers to believe in him or he perishes. Rose suggests in the film that the legends of our lives depend on believers and the continuation of the legend to keep it alive.
Candyman is a tension-filled thrill ride from start to finish that is not afraid to tackle social and racial issues head-on. The film owes much of its suspense to Philip Glass’s spine-chilling score and Anthony B. Richmond’s cinematography that both capture the violence and horror depicted in the film. The movie does contain moments of explicit violence, malicious horror, and nudity. Although Bernard Rose’s Candyman borders on the absurd, it is nonetheless a horror movie that lives up to its cult-classic status.
Night of the Living Dead (1990)
Directed by Tom Savini, written by George A. Romero
In this 1990 remake of the 1968 horror classic Night of the Living Dead, renowned special effects artist and director Tom Savini works directly with original creator George A. Romero to expand on and reintroduce the film in a new setting. This recreation of one of the pioneering films in the zombie genre draws from the original maintaining a sense of commentary while also standing alone as a quality zombie film. Savini’s experience as an effects designer resulted in an appealing aesthetic allowing for the sense of panic, distrust, and desperation to resonate within the viewer.
The film follows a group of individuals in the Pennsylvanian suburbs during a zombie outbreak. Survivors Barbra (Patricia Tallman), Ben (Tony Todd), Judy Rose (Katie Finneran), Tom (William Butler), as well as Harry (Tom Towles) and Sarah Cooper (Heather Mazur), along with their sick and injured daughter convene in an old farmhouse in an attempt to barricade away from the attackers as they try to plot an escape. Amongst the stress and terror of the circumstance, the viewer witnesses a multitude of fear responses as the characters clash in their means of protecting themselves and their loved ones to overcome the situation.
Tony Todd’s iteration of Ben, a still rare though recently the trend has begun to shift, African American horror protagonist brings forth an intimidating yet comforting type of lead as he tries to rally the group into fighting against the hoard. His various interactions with the other survivors allow for a sense of depth within his character. He and Harry conflict from the beginning surrounding their adamance of the proper course of action. Towles’ Harry is a competent foil in his stubborn argumentativeness as he actively and argumentatively opposes any actions that stray from his own, and it breeds a constant pushback against Todd’s Ben. On the other hand, Ben appears as more of a guiding force when interacting with Barbra or Tom. While still adamant in his beliefs, his apparent self-assured confidence and definitive plan offer a sense of stability and purpose to them amidst the chaos instead of competition.
Though the character relationships are compelling, the persistent arguments on what to do even as a course of action is being taken can at times feel like the movie is stagnating rather than progressing. Similarly, in Savini’s distinct style, color, and possibly because of the sense that things are absent due to issues with production conflict, the pacing and suspense of the film can seem off. Along with this, the similarities to the original film can make the modern additions feel almost distracting as checkpoints as opposed to cohesive creative decisions. Despite the style differences however Savini’s practical effects with the zombies does provide convincingly menacing monsters, and his adjustments to the characters fit into the media landscape they were released into.
Ben as an African American hero in a horror film did not have quite the same resonance with 1990’s viewers as 1968’s, or even now in the current landscape, but his presence still holds a place in horror history as representative of what is not often seen. Even the type of agency present in the female characters is demonstrative of changing narratives in film. Similarly, as a zombie film in general, it is designed to reflect a fear of the self in ways it can be perverted into destruction.
Ultimately, the 1990’s Night of the Living Dead remake stands on its own as an entertaining and compelling zombie film that clearly respects its predecessor. This updated introduction of a defining film of the genre has carved a place for itself alongside it.
Directed by Jordan Peele
Us is a 2019 horror film by Jordan Peele which possesses an unflinchingly cheery surreal vibe and that mood is not lost during the acts of terror and violence. It is as if Peele bottled the deep feeling of unease that spawned from the nightmarish chocolate riverboat scene in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory (1971) and cultivated it into an entire film. The plot centers around the Wilson family, specifically Adelaide Wilson, who gets attacked by a group of strangers that share their likeness. Going into the film I expected something akin to Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), but now I would say that a more accurate description would be to call it the passionate love-child of The Hills Have Eyes (1977), Coraline (2009) and They Live (1988). From the very first moments in the opening scene, it becomes abundantly clear that there is something deeply wrong with the world these characters inhabit.
One night at the Santa Cruz beach boardwalk, a young Adelaide wanders away from her parents and comes face to face with a sinister doppelgänger, who appears to terrorize Adelaide into a post-traumatic state. The plot then quickly shuffles time forward to Adelaide as an adult, returning to Santa Cruz with her husband and two children. The Wilson family’s likability cannot be understated. From light-hearted jokes to well-meaning reprimands, their wholesomeness is vividly communicated in confidently laid-back acting style. This allows the duplicates to stand in stark contrast by seizing the positive characteristics of the Wilsons and twist them into brutal eccentricities. For example, Jason—the impressionable and kind hearted son—enjoys magic tricks and wearing masks. Whereas his duplicate, Pluto, is an animalistic pyromaniac that wears a mask to cover the burn scars that cover the bottom half of his face. The duplicates state that they have had no free will, up until now, and have been forced all their lives to mirror the actions of the Wilsons—such as giving birth to the children, regardless of their own desires to conceive—in a twisted parody of the Wilson’s lives. The duplicates’ existence has been an unending parade of pain, madness, and torment, made all the worse by the knowledge that they are simply mimicking a happier life. But now they are free, and have come to sever the tethers that keep them linked to the family. They intend to relish in the family’s helplessness and fear before killing them.
Thematically, there is a lot to unpack here. For starters, there is an overabundance of twinning instances—and not simply with the duplicates. Props, numbers, behaviors, and shot compositions are mirrored or recreated so often that my head began to spin. Even the duplicates’ murder weapon—a pair of scissors—have two equally large finger holes. The holes are emphasized by the duplicates holding the scissors at the blade in a two-handed grip. The twinning quickly becomes apparent and by the time you start consciously looking for mirroring, you will probably have missed a large amount of twin instances or callbacks. Thankfully, this means that there is a lot of meat on its bones for subsequent viewings, and what a delightful viewing experience it is! The cinematography, ontop of being devilishly clever, relishes entombing the characters in deep shadows, only to strike out with vivid colors. At times I was reminded of scenes from Suspiria (1977), although the color pallet leans closer to pop-art, rather than hyper-aggressive purity.
Beyond the staggeringly beautiful mise-en-scène, the film masterfully articulates the stark differences between ‘the haves’ and ‘have nots’ and the rage that builds from being raised as part of a suppressed people. The duplicates' painfully stunted/shunned existence links up with a wide variety of marginalized groups or societal outcasts that desperately wish to strike out against those that live without strife or are draped in privileges that were given to them through the circumstances of their birth. The duplicates are the embodiment of oppressed rage, unbound and desperate to express themselves in a manner that brings them fulfillment and freedom from their unwitting oppressors. It soon becomes clear that their attack is far greater than one calculated assault, this is a full blown revolution that threatens to dismantle the very foundation of society. However, at about the three-quarters mark the plot evolves into a far more convoluted and perplexing beast. There is a definite need to suspend your disbelief and accept the dream-like quality of the climax, otherwise your mind will start to snag on a large number of valid questions that the film is simply uninterested in answering.
Us takes a firm stance, focusing solely on projecting powerful thoughts and even stronger visual messages, but the methods it uses to accomplish these goals may leave viewers feeling slightly underwhelmed or even frustrated. The best way to enjoy Us is to go into it understanding that the “whys” are far less important than the “whos.” Allow yourself to relax and get lost in shadowy forrest of delightfully sharp dialogue and darkly hilarious usage of Luniz’s “I got 5 on it” and N.W.A’s “Fuck The Police.” Feast upon the squirming buffet of memorable scenes, shockingly powerful performances, and deeply nuanced themes. Just don’t go chasing down any narrative rabbit holes or you may find yourself lost in a never-ending funhouse maze of confusing tunnels...and who knows what manner of creature could be lurking down there, eagerly waiting to pounce upon us.
— Jarred White
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