Us – Review

Lupita Nyong’o, Evan Alex, Shahadi Wright Joseph, and Winston Duke in Us

Us opened last weekend to a mammoth $70.2 million, becoming the highest opening original horror movie and biggest ever opening for a film with a black female lead.  What’s more,  Us, Jordan Peele’s follow-up to his Oscar winning instant classic Get Out, is just plain awesome.  It’s a fun, immersive, thoughtful spectacular that just happens to center on an African American family.  It’s as if Jordan Peele is shrugging, saying, “I make outstanding horror films with black leads, NBD” while his doppelganger is brandishing a pair of golden scissors and shrieking “it’s a very big deal.”


Us opens with a bizarre opening title sequence—Get Out composer Michael Abels provides an even better score here—that won’t make any sense until much later in the narrative.  Then there’s an excellent 1986 set sequence on the Santa Cruz boardwalk, wherein a little girl wanders away from her squabbling parents and encounters her mirror image in a spooky funhouse.   Flash forward to the present: the Wilsons are a middle class family headed to their vacation house.  Gabe (Winston Duke) is an endearingly goofy dad.  Jason (Evan Alex) is an oddball kid with an affinity for Halloween masks and magic tricks.  Sister Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) is a high school running star alternately amused and annoyed by most of her family, aka every teenage girl ever.  Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o, transcendent) is a fiercely protective mother who anchors the clan, but something’s bothering her.  That was her in the funhouse, and she’s intensely triggered by this return.  It doesn’t spoil anything to say that her doppelganger soon arrives with copies of the entire family in tow; mayhem ensues.  Anyone who gives away more than that deserves to dine on raw rabbit.

Nyong’o

The construction of Us is exquisite.  Portents of doom and symbolism abound, from the Biblical quote to the mirror imagery everywhere you look.  The Wilsons’ friends, the Tylers, are a parallel family.  Two parents, two kids: white/black, rich/not so rich, happy/deeply dysfunctional.  (As boozy mom Kitty, Elisabeth Moss gets to show off her acting chops—though no one can hold a candle to Lupita here.)  There are clues and winks saturating the movie, but Peele isn’t showing off.  He’s just inviting you to immerse yourself in his world.  He beckons the audience into his nightmare kingdom as surely as the characters are drawn into that funhouse.  At the risk of belaboring a point, Us truly is a funhouse; while Get Out was deadly serious, this movie is a thrill ride, leavened with humor and as enjoyable as it is creepy.

Alex and Alex

For the past week, I’ve been debating this movie with friends.  Does the mythology make sense?  Are there plot holes?  Is it overrated, poorly written, etc., etc.?  I’ve engaged with the conversations—it’s the kind of movie you should see with friends, and plan to talk about over coffee or cocktails immediately afterward.  But I remain unshaken in my conviction that this is an extremely well made, imaginative, and entertaining film that is destined to become a classic.  Peele displays such complete command of his craft, from script to camera to lighting to the inspired choice of songs: Janelle Monae and N.W.A. are among the standouts.  All of the performers turn in excellent work.  Everything you’ve heard about Nyong’o is true.  She is utterly remarkable as Adelaide and her scissors-loving “Tethered” counterpart, Red.  If there was any justice in the world, she would be nominated for an Oscar for this movie, but the Academy will probably snub her.  No matter.  She makes this movie, aptly supported by the entire cast.  Duke is endearing and truly outstanding in his own right.  He’s also one of the sexiest bears I’ve seen onscreen in a long while.  (Add unconventional body types to the Hollywood standards this movie casually upends.)  He and the kids are adept at vividly portraying their sinister “shadows,” too.


We already knew Jordan Peele was one to watch.  This terrific movie only serves to confirm it, and as a horror fan, I’m thrilled to have a new master to follow—especially one slicing through barriers.

Monster-Mania Con 42 report

The author and Rachel True

“I’m just saying if you’re gonna have three out of the witches, you need four, don’tcha?” actress Rachel True asked, referring to the controversy that erupted when she went public about an unnamed convention inviting all three female leads in The Craft–except her.  “Sounds about white,” she tweeted dryly.  “I’m very happy to be here with my whole cast,” she declared.  “I’m delighted to be here with the whole cast.  I am.” 

An attendee showing off their The Craft inspired jacket.

True talked to me at Monster-Mania 42, “the semi-annual Philadelphia Horror Film & Memorabilia Convention,” which invited her to join Robin Tunney, Fairuza Balk, and Neve Campbell for a Craft reunion at their March event shortly after the snub story broke.  The coven proved to be one of the weekend’s biggest draws.  There’s always a preponderance of Goths and geeks at the convention, of course, but the Craft ladies brought them out in force.  Much of the crowd seemed to exemplify Balk’s famous line “We are the weirdoes, mister.”  I told a woman in line with me that her outfit was appropriately witchy.  “Oh!” she replied.  “This is just what I wear all the time.”  Elsewhere, cosplayers embodied a mix of horror icons like The Haunting of Hill House’s “Bent Neck Lady” and a gender-swapped Ash (from Evil Dead) and comics universe characters like Batgirl and Gotham’s Oswald Cobblepot.

Cosplayers KJ Buxton and Alexa Bronco

The weekend marked the one year anniversary of a near disastrous event wherein the combination of big names like Tim Curry, Paul Reubens, Richard Dreyfuss, and the young stars of It (2017) drew crowds far past the capacity of the Cherry Hill, NJ Crown Plaza Hotel.  The fire department intervened, limiting Saturday admittance, shutting down a tent meant to host panels, and leaving droves of fans either left out in the cold (literally) or just plain ticked off.  To its credit, the organizers have since taken steps to strictly limit sales to reasonable capacity, meaning advance tickets are pretty much a must—but the precautions have paid off in avoiding a similar debacle.  I went on the comparably quieter Sunday this time, and although I heard the day before was packed, it didn’t sound anything like the previous year.

Justin with Halloween (2018)’s Jibrail Nantambu

The Con drew a wide assortment of guests, including two other notable African American actors: Jibrail Nantambu, who stole the show with his hilarious, heavily improvised performance in Halloween (2018), and Eugene Clark, the imposing actor who memorably played “Big Daddy,” the leader of the zombies in George Romero’s Land of the Dead.  There was also Dylan McDermott, hunky star of American Horror Story and the 1990 scifi thriller Hardware, original Michael Myers Nick Castle and 2018 version James Jude Courtney, 80s hearththrob Dolph Lundgren (He-Man in the camp classic Masters of the Universe), and Meatloaf!  (Christina Ricci was only there through Saturday, so I missed her. Le sigh.)

Also in attendance was Ashlee Blackwell, founder of the scholarly website Graveyard Shift Sisters (graveyardshiftsisters.com) and co-writer/producer of the excellent Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror, currently streaming on Shudder.  I watched the film to prepare for meeting True, who appears throughout the movie’s brisk 83 minute runtime.  The actress joins everyone from Candyman Tony Todd to Get Out director Jordan Peele to discuss the history of black representation and contributions to horror, with plenty of illuminating insights throughout.  “It’s so good, isn’t it?” True enthused.  “Tell your white friends to watch it, because I think people think it’s only for Black [people]—it’s not, if you like horror, this is a great documentary, right?”  I agreed that it was, and mentioned how passionately Geeks OUT believes in representation.  “I’m really big on representation!” True responded, adding pointedly, “I’m here.  I’m happy to be here.” 

Someone Tell JK Rowling to Stop

The weird ‘facts’ JK Rowling has shared has turned into a fairly hilarious meme describing all of the ‘new information’ JK Rowling has bestowed about Harry Potter characters as well as other fandoms. It’s inception has come from the Harry Potter author divulging various tidbits on Twitter and it interviews about characters and plot points that really don’t have anything to do with the story. The intention to expand the Harry Potter universe is interesting in of itself, but telling us that a character is actually part of a minority way after the fact is hollow and irritating.Unfortunately, the stuff that JK Rowling comes up somehow outshines the creativity of Twitter with it’s sheer ridiculousness.


The latest revelation that she decided to share was that Dumbledore and Grindelwald had an ‘intense sexual relationship’.


First of all, no one was asking about that, and no one wanted it. Seriously there was never any time during the books or movies where I sat there wondering about any of the characters’ sex life. It’s not important to the story and at this point doesn’t give us any value at all. This revelation is nowhere as strange as the ‘wizards used to shit themselves before muggles invented toilets’ factoid, but the weird faux-representation she is trying to bestow is hurtful, annoying, and frankly pointless.


Full disclosure, I started reading the Harry Potter books when I was 11, rereading them all multiple times. The book series has it flaws, but I still love it with all of my heart. But as the years have passed the more and more JKR has tried to shove weird ‘inclusive’ things into the series, it’s taking away any joy I used to feel about these books.


People were obviously disappointed that a gay character (which wasn’t revealed in the books at all) would be in a movie with his love interested and there would absolutely zero queer context. It feels like someone dangling representation in front of faces only chastised when we want concrete examples of queer characters in the Harry Potter universe. It seems like she’s trying to be inclusive in ways that are safe to her and the franchising bottom line. JK Rowling and Harry Potter wouldn’t suffer greatly if there was actual canonical representation in Fantastic Beasts, but it probably would have hurt if she explicitly stated Dumbledore’s sexual orientation in the books.


This does NOT mean, however, talking about how two male characters used to bone a lot. It still leaves the representation at zero and overly sexualizes characters that are in books made for children and young adults. I’m not saying there shouldn’t be any of that in kids books, but it’s not what we’re asking for and it feels extremely strange to be given that over a decade since the last book was released. Saying Dumbledore and Grindelwald have sex is supposed to make me feel better about there being no out queer characters canonically? What does this solve exactly? Am I supposed to be satiated by this?


It would have been brave of her to include an openly gay character in a popular book series that debuted in 1997. But now it all just feels like I’m reading really bad fanfiction. I’ve read better fanfiction that includes more tasteful and concrete representation. Now I’m left questioning why no one in her circle is telling her to stop tweeting these empty platitudes. I’m wondering why her or anyone else feels like this is a solution to the lack of diverse representation in the books and the movies.


I’m not going to lie, the JK Rowling memes have been more creative than and interesting than Rowling’s revelations. But I would trade them all for actually queer representation in the Harry Potter universe. Queer wizards want to be seen too.

Everything is a Mess Right Now and We Need Queer Content

Pride is about celebrating where we come from, who we are and what we could be. Storytelling is a way we can explore ourselves and our community. Queer content exists, but need more of our stories told. More comics, more television, more movies, more music. If it feels like the already minimal representation we’re getting in Hollywood is shrinking, you’re correct.

 

GLAAD found that of the 109 releases from major studios in 2017, only 14 (12.8%) of them included characters that are LGBTQ. This represents a significant decrease from the previous year’s report (18.4% or 23 out of 125), and the lowest percentage of LGBTQ-inclusive major studio releases since GLAAD began tracking in 2012. Not one of the 109 releases included a transgender character.

We need diversity. Real, intersectional diversity. Diversity that acknowledges that people of every race and ethnicity can be queer. Diversity that acknowledges that queer people can also be disabled. That nonbinary, pansexual, and asexual people exist. That elderly queer people exist. That the queer community is made up of these groups of people and should be represented as suchnot as tokens, but as people who interact with their multifaceted identities within multiple communities.

 

Also, can we not end everything in tragedy? Stories about heartbreak and/or death seem to dominate mainstream queer content. Angst is a part of the mainstream while happiness and fluff seemed to be cast aside as somehow inauthentic. When depressing stories dominate the narrative, it’s hard to see a life outside of wallowing in our sad queer lives. It further drives home that anything that has a happy ending is unrealistic for queer characters. Why should they not have the chance to ride off in the sunset or live happily ever after?

 

Not every queer story needs to be politicized. Because by default we are political beings. Yes, the world is oppressive and sucks a lot, but that doesn’t mean that every story needs to focus on that. I’m not going around my day lamenting to my friends about the oppressive systems in place or how I’m afraid to hold my wife’s hand in public walking down the street. Those stories are extremely important, but they don’t tell the whole story. Sometimes a group of queer people can exist and do things without wringing their hands about how much the world sucks. We can usually walk the dog or grocery shop without bringing up our political identities.

 

We need stories outside of the ones where we come out to our families and loved ones. Coming out stories are critical to the queer narrative, but many stories leave out that we are constantly coming out to randos. This past week alone, I came out to a couple of new co-workers. Initially, it might be this grand gesture, but coming out can become mundane and not that interesting. Where is the story where someone has to come out to their dentist?

 

I want a story where queer seniors start a bowling league. Or group of trans dragon tamers. I want daring science fiction with a protagonist who is badass and queer. Epic tales that don’t solely focus on a character’s sexuality or gender identity. Queer characters that exist in worlds and universes unabashedly themselves, and no one questions it. Despite what is shown to us in the mainstream media, suffering is not the only authenticator of the queer identity and experience.

 

During Pride month especially, it’s important to look back and celebrate the various media that has shaped and defined our identities. They might use words that we no longer accept, or even cringe at, but it’s crucial to acknowledge them for what they are in our history and then do better. Let’s celebrate them by moving forward and expanding the narrative to include all queer folx.

 

Null Space: LGBT Representation in the Final Frontier

From the very beginning, Star Trek has garnered a reputation for being a trailblazer on minority representation. Each of its series has featured a diverse cast and strong female characters that stood out from it’s contemporaries. Whoopi Goldberg is perhaps one of the more prominent Star Trek fans to have been inspired by Nichelle Nichols role as Lieutenant Uhura in The Original Series. The same role has inspired a few actual astronauts as well. It is for this reason that the lack of LGBT representation across nearly two decades of Star Trek television (1987-2005) was such a disappointment.

The one honest attempt to take on LGBT issues came in the form of the 1992 Next Generation episode “The Outcast.” While it has some truly great moments that clearly depict the writer’s intentions, it ultimately falls short of having any true representation. I’m not the first person to do a present day analysis of this episode, and I doubt I will be the last. The fact that it is the one episode out of roughly 700 (and 12 movies) to honestly tackle LGBT issues head on, it stands out. With a new series set to launch in 2017, it’s worth taking a closer look at one of the franchise’s more unfortunate shortcomings.

“The Outcast” opens with the USS Enterprise assisting the J’naii (an androgynous race) with locating one of their missing shuttle craft. In their search they come across what appears to be a pocket of null space–a theoretical concept which had never been encountered before this discovery. Null space is described in Memory Alpha as “a pocket of space filled with the bright light of condensed turbulent magnetic and gravitational fields, absorbing all electromagnetic energy from anything that enters the phenomenon. The fields also bend all outside energy around the pocket, making it essentially invisible.”

After the crew is briefed on the abnormality they are dealing with, Commander Riker teams up with the J’naii pilot Soren in order to attempt a rescue mission. In doing so, the two begin to talk about their respective culture’s views on gender. Here we learn the J’naii once had two genders like humans, but they evolved to a higher form and now share a single gender. When Soren asks Riker about what attracts males to females, he gives a coy response filled with his winning Riker charm, but fails to mention the existence of homosexuality among humans. This is repeated later on when Soren questions Dr. Crusher about the female perspective. On both occasions the conversations lent themselves perfectly to both Riker and Crusher including the alternatives to heterosexual relationships in their answers to Soren. It is as though same sex attraction is something neither character has ever heard of.

I stress this point because I believe it is the most telling flaw in the entire episode. Even in a story that uses an allegory to represent modern day LGBT issues, there is no acknowledgement of queer humans ever existing. Even in our own episode we are invisible. Null space feels like an an unfortunate and unintentionally fitting metaphor.

All of this undercuts the episode’s stronger moments. When Soren “comes out” to Riker as being different and professes her attraction to him as a male, it is a powerful scene. She touches on the bullying she’s seen her peers go through and the constant fear of being discovered. She minces no words describing the evil and abusive practice of forced “curing” those who are outed are forced to go through. The scene can easily resonate with anyone who’s ever dealt with any of those things. In Soren’s particular case, she identifies as female (hence the use of the she/her pronouns). This is considered a perversion in J’naii society.

Soren’s character is nothing if not brave, and not just for “coming out” as female. “Commander, tell me about your sexual organs” might be the best pickup line ever used in the history of Star Trek. It certainly worked for Soren, as it wasn’t long before she and Riker were kissing. This too has been a point of criticism (the kiss, not the pickup line). Jonathan Frakes (the actor who plays Riker) said himself that he thought the scene (and episode) would have been more powerful if Soren were played by a man. If that had been the case, it could have born parallels to the Original Series episode “Plato’s Stepchildren,” which featured the first interracial kiss ever aired on television. Instead, like numerous other parts of the episode, it fell short.

The episode ends with Picard asking Riker if his business with the J’naii is done before moving on to their next mission. Riker confirms that it is, and Picard gives the command to go to warp speed. The one criticism I have here is not that it was an unhappy ending. It rightly portrayed the “curing” of Soren’s so-called perversions in a negative light. What is unfortunate is that the “cure” worked, and it set in quickly. It a difficult thing to stomach when science has shown us repeatedly that so-called conversion therapy does not work. I don’t know how sound or well-researched the science was on this in the early 90’s, so I would give them a pass here. They at least did the part of portraying it as abusive and unjust.

All in all, “The Outcast” is a mixed bag. There are reviews that have praised it, and others that have torn it apart. I don’t think it would be this heavily scrutinized if it weren’t the only real offering of queer issues in the franchise’s long history. The criticism on this front is valid because Star Trek had established itself as a progressive, forward thinking series right from the very beginning. We know it could have done better because it had done better. With a new series coming in 2017, fifty years after the first Star Trek episode aired, should we have hope that the show will once again embrace its progressive roots? Only time will tell.

Further Reading
Homosexuality in Star Trek – a really in depth look at homosexuality in the franchise on the Star Trek fan site Ex Astris Scientia.
Gay “Trek” – a nice detailed article written before the debut of Enterprise for Salon.
Scrapbook Enterprise – my own super geeky documentation on my journey through the Universe of Star Trek.

Follow me on twitter @danielstalter and check out my comic series on dreamcrashercomic.com.