See You Yesterday Taps Into Sci-Fi and the Black Lives Reality

Netflix does it again by taking a chance on representation. In the tradition of classic TV series like Sliders and Quantum Leap, Stefon Bristol’s first feature film See You Yesterday combines time travel, mistaken identity and black family bonds for a strong sci-fi debut.

CJ (Duncan-Smith) and Sebastian (Crichlow) trying to figure out time jumping.

CJ (Eden Duncan-Smith) is a brilliant Brooklyn high school student and along with her best friend Sebastian (Dante Crichlow), devises a time travelling, or temporal relocation, machine. After a few technical glitches, they successfully jump to the day before. When her brother Calvin (Astro aka Brian Bradley) gets killed by police due to mistaken identity, CJ thinks she can change his destiny by jumping back in time to save his life.  

Expanding on his short film of the same name, Bristol gets major points for giving us a black female protagonist who is determined, ambitious, intelligent and extremely likable, as well as a heartwarming take on the West Indian community in Flatbush, a loving brother and sister relationship, and a single mother family that lost their father while he was in the army, not by any crime. He shows us everyday life in Brooklyn for black folks, from visiting the neighborhood bodega to being harassed by the police.  The characters seem real with Duncan-Smith, Crichlow and Bradley showing an easy chemistry that transitions from light banter to intense discussions well. Bristol was an intern for Spike Lee, who also produced the film, and you can see Lee’s influence in an homage to his “double dolly shot” and the social commentary narrative, but Bristol has created his own vision of young black Brooklynites in jeopardy.

There will be obvious comparisons to Jordan Peele’s recent Twilight Zone episode, “Replay”, starring Sanaa Lathan. Here, she plays a mother who wants to document her son’s arrival at college with her vintage camcorder only to realize she can rewind the device to go back in time and save him when a racist cop guns him down. Both stories deal with the daily fears of black people being pulled over, interrogated and killed because of the color of their skin. Both deal with strong women who refuse to take the fate doled out to so many innocent black men in this time of protest, but where Peele made an effort to show blacks conquering, Bristol aims for a sobering and open-ended resolution.

The look and feel of the film is deceiving. The wardrobe is hip and young, representing a DIY style of kids on a budget.  A squeal-inducing cameo by one of the original time travellers Michael J. Fox as CJ’s science teacher Mr. Lockhart, the bright, summery cinematography, and strong, witty language seems like a formula for fun, but Bristol has made a teen sci-fi film for this new age of awareness.  This lightheartedness changes tone abruptly to mirror life when you first realize your world isn’t impervious to the outside terrors of violence. Even though this film is speculative and fiction, for those of us who have lost someone when we are young or naïve, it’s a reality. This may not please a lot of people because the film also ends abruptly, but it’s all too real because in this current climate, there aren’t a lot of black families who get their happy ending.

CJ racing against time.

See You Yesterday is streaming now, so do yourself a favor and see it for a perfect representation of how black people continue to create their own narrative. It gives us a wonderful black female character, the message of both despair and hope, and a story that could easily be continued as a popular Netflix series.

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum Brings the Thrills

If you know me well, you know I love Keanu Reeves. I will defend him to the death, especially when I hear the tired complaint that he’s a one-note, wooden actor and has no talent. The Matrix franchise shows he knows his strengths and plays up to them, and the John Wick universe is no different. In John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum, Reeves transports us to perhaps the strongest film set in his assassin universe.

John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum continues where John Wick Chapter 2 leaves off: Wick has an hour to find refuge after he’s condemned for killing a fellow assassin in the New York Continental Hotel, a consecrated place of neutrality among assassins.  With a $14 million bounty on his head and perhaps the cutest pit bull ever at his side, he soon has to pool his resources and secret caches to get himself back into the fold. There are many consequences with his major faux pas, ones that involve the manager of the hotel, Winston (Ian McShane) and the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne), who both must make a choice of loyalty to Wick or fealty to the powers that be when the adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon)  from the High Table comes to lay down punishments. Anyone who helps Wick falls victim to her ruling, and it’s severe. Her assassin for hire Zero (Mark Dacascos) is bent on fulfilling her wishes and adding Wick’s kill to his trophy wall. Wick must fight his way across the globe with only his skills, determination and reluctant allies to help him find his way back to his status.

The first two movies are primers for this third spectacular action film; they condition the audience to expect the rules of this assassin universe.  We clue in by the second entry when you realize people having epic fights in the streets doesn’t make the locals bat an eye. It also allows for some characters, like Russian task mistress The Director played by Angelica Huston or the mystical Elder played by Saïd Taghmaoui, to evade stereotypes and become archetypes to whom John Wick must pay his dues in order to finish his odyssey.

Speaking of fights, John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum is a master class from director Chad Stahelski (a former stuntman himself) on how to film back to back fight scenes and break tension up with humor. Fabulously choreographed fight sequences in a library, a stable (with some brutal kicks from the horses themselves), on horseback and in an antiques warehouse dazzles and leaves you winded, and I was pleased to see Yayan Ruhian, fight choreographer for The Raid movies, as one of the shinobi ninjas after Wick. There was also a motorcycle fight reminiscent of a similar scene in 2017’s female assassin film The Villainess and just as insane. The cinematography by Academy Award nominated Dan Lausten (who also worked on The Shape of Water, John Wick Chapter 2 and Crimson Peak) was stunning, with dark rainy Bladrunner-esque scenes to endless sand dunes in the desert. Throughout the whole film was a self-awareness by the characters that was clever and tongue in cheek. Oh, and thank you to the John Wick gods for putting that man on a horse.

Thank you, thank you, thank you!

As I mentioned before, Reeves knows his strengths and he plays them up in true deadpan style to a “T.” A shout out goes to Halle Berry whose role could have gone to literally anyone but they decided to choose diversity. Berry does the work, gets the knocks-she sustained three broken ribs training for the role- and delivered as Sophia, one of John’s past allies.

The franchise machine is known for watering down beloved characters, but not here. John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum is my favorite of the three films. It’s filled with heart, dark humor, outstanding fight scenes and it’s a must-see for fans of the John Wick universe.  

The Ranger Comes to Shudder!

What happens when young punk rockers do bad things, hide out in nature, and piss off a diligent and psychotic forest ranger? You’ll need to watch Jenn Wexler’s The Ranger to find out.

Chelsea (Chloe Levine) is an introspective young woman running with a rowdy bunch.  During a raid at a punk show, Chelsea is cornered by a cop, who is stabbed by her protective and rebellious boyfriend Garth (Granit Lahu).  The group of kids narrowly escape capture and make off to Chelsea’s dead uncle Pete’s (Larry Fessenden) cabin deep in the mountains.  They meet a forest ranger (Jeremy Holm) at a rest stop who recognizes Chelsea because when she was a girl, he rescued her after her uncle died in hunting accident. 

Levine as Chelsea

At the cabin hideout, her cronies begin to party and desecrate the forest around them, upsetting Chelsea.  Fraternizing with punks who don’t seem value much except drugs and loud music doesn’t suit her.  She begs her friends to be more respectful of their surroundings, but they ignore her and suffer the consequences of disturbing the Ranger’s domain.  Terror and death plague them, and Chelsea struggles with a secret the Ranger holds over her head as she fights for her life.

The kids. This is just “no place to party”!

Wexler, along with writer Giaco Furino, turns the urban/suburban slasher into a severe, rule-abiding entity with seemingly omniscient powers.  The Ranger is in touch with nature in a very psychotic way, and plays off of Chelsea’s fish out of water persona in the big city.  Wexler also gives us a band of rotten teens reminiscent of the lot in Return of the Living Dead, and offers a decent throwback to 80s horror for her feature-length debut. You’ll see some effective kills, a mandatory Fessenden appearance (the film is backed by his Glass Eye Pix production company), a driving punk soundtrack and a same-sex couple to boot. 

The cast gave solid performances as caricatures of destructive punks, and Levine plays a fantastic final girl with lots of heart and determination. Holm, a familiar face on House of Cards and Mr. Robot, is memorable and super-weird as The Ranger, making Wexler a director to watch. In fact, I hope she has a prequel coming because we need to know all about the origins of nature’s slash-daddy!

Holm as The Ranger

See why The Ranger was buzzed about at SXSW in 2018, gained several nominations, and a win for best soundtrack at Fantaspoa International Film Festival on May 9th when it streams on Shudder!

Jordan Peele’s Us and The Impostor Within

This past weekend, Jordan Peele’s second feature film Us opened to record numbers at the box office, once again proving our confidence in his talent as well as the need for more horror. His latest contribution takes another look at (North) American culture, but this time it’s a deep dive into who we see in the mirror and what we actually are.

Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) and her family are on their summer vacation. She heads to her beach home along with her daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), son Jason (Evan Alex), and handsome, good-natured husband Gabe (Winston Duke). It’s a good life, but the visit to Santa Cruz, California holds some traumatic memories for her. She is tense as they meet up with friends Josh (Tim Heidecker), Kitty (Elisabeth Moss), and their twin daughters on the beach; and frantic when she loses sight of her son Jason who is transfixed by a bloodied, jumpsuit-clad man gazing into the horizon. Later she tells Gabe about an incident that left her traumatized as child when she met her double in a creepy fun house on that very beach. She feels the double is still around and watching her. That evening, her worst fear is realized when her doppelgänger, and carbon copies of Adelaide’s family, appears at their home. They are called the Tethered from an unknown underworld, and they are set to terrorize the family for a larger purpose.

Adelaide and her terrified family.

I had to collect my thoughts on Us for several days. I left the theatre feeling overwhelmed by the images flashed on the screen, like a rich meal sitting on the palate hours after consuming. I felt uncertain, wondering if this feast for the eyes was going to sit right; if I would like it and want another serving, and I’m pleased I can say yes to both. There are layers and layers of themes to be discussed, and you’ll find wonderful pieces online covering doppelgängers, the biblical passage of Jeremiah 11:11, and double consciousness, but what came to the surface for me was class and Impostor Syndrome.

First, some other thoughts: Peele’s central protagonists are members of a black family, leveling the playing field for me so I could concentrate on other aspects of the film like the narrative and subplots. I could actually relax into the experience instead of wondering in the back of my mind what it would be like to have a black performer play the role of Adelaide if Us had an all white cast. I’ve mentioned before in my review of the documentary Horror Noire that I felt a certain anxiety over black characters in horror because they fulfilled tropes and stereotypes instead of proper representation. Here, Peele provides a master class in representing black culture; normalizing it instead of mimicking stereotypes and appropriation. You can see this in his organic use of the song “I Got 5 On It” and the Howard University sweatshirt – two feasible and easily believable “black” signifiers. This middle-class black family defies Hollywood’s representation of blacks. There’s no guns, gangs or prostitutes, just family trauma. He also normalizes the fact that young Adelaide’s mother is concerned with her well-being enough to take her to a therapist instead of asking her to pray for guidance, an interesting secular aspect even though there is a larger biblical theme of doom and gloom connecting the plot of the film.

The performances were fantastic, and just what you would expect from Peele as a director. The film itself was funnier than I anticipated, with Duke’s endearing and heroically bumbling Gabe and the great chemistry between Joseph and Alex as siblings. All eyes, however, are on Nyong’o. Her skill at becoming two completely different people is boundless. From facial and body tics to genuine menace, she clearly shows her attention to detail and the love of her craft. Her duality is, of course, central to the film and affected me the most.

Spoilers from this point on!

If you’ve seen the film, you know that Adelaide was once a Tethered, and switched places with the real Adelaide, now called Red, when they were children. America is the land of opportunity where the fittest will survive, and Adelaide’s switch is a great allegory for the opportunistic mentality of people’s drive to get what they want. She got herself out of the tunnels and into the real world. As a result, Adelaide is constantly looking over her shoulder because she knows she isn’t in her rightful place, and she is truly an impostor. I’ve had that same feeling because Impostor Syndrome started early for me. Growing up in a white neighbourhood, I was faced with the guilt of not living in the community housing with the other black kids, and the perpetual knowledge that my family was treated like we weren’t supposed to be in the white neighbourhood. I felt clumsy in my portrayal of a black girl, not knowing the right way to finally be accepted because the black kids were suspicious of me, and the white kids said I really wasn’t black because I didn’t fit their white supremacist rules of blackness or class. I was playing a role in each arena and not getting it quite right, like Adelaide trying to snap in time to music.

To add to this feeling of a fraudulent existence, my mother told me to keep my head down and behave because if something went wrong, black children would be blamed first. She did this to protect her black daughters in an unforgiving world, but it was a cardinal rule that boxed me in with expectations and dread. Like Adelaide, I had to keep myself in check, worried that my carefully constructed world of avoidance wasn’t enough to protect my fraudulent roles, and wondering whether I would ever show my true self; if I even knew who I really was. I understood Adelaide protecting her status, identity and American Dream; to deal with her secret plus the weight of heading a successful black family.

Red and her doppelgänger family.

Adelaide escaped the Tethered, a forgotten people, left to fend for themselves once the government experiment they were a part of went awry. They mimicked the upside world, every move warped, with no hope of escape. This hidden society, this powerless class found a leader in Red, who saw her opportunity to rise up and revolt by planning her own revolution based on one of the few things she remembered from her childhood, Hands Across America.  This charity event to help the homeless meant well but was a bust in the end. She planned to make her version a success for her fellow Tethered and regain her identity from Adelaide, driven by her entitlement to her real life. I sympathized with Red too, since her rightful place was taken from her. This jockeying for a prime position created the ultimate showdown between a woman and her double, in a world full of hidden meanings, our darkest fears and deepest secrets. 

The scope of Us is vast, and whether you see it as a battle between our worst selves, our fears, classes, or a biblical reckoning, it’s a literal rabbit hole of self-reflection everyone should fall down and get lost in over and over again.

Ek Thi Dayaan: Bollywood’s Modern Witch Myth

I used to work in a library situated in Toronto’s Little India, where I would come across a heavy rotation of Bollywood DVDs, magazines and TV series.  I finally took the plunge one day after asking a co-worker what she would recommend and was seduced right away.  From comedies like Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), to traditional love stories like my all time favourite Taal (1999) and yes, the songs still make me cry, those colourful cinematic smorgasbords with dancing and singing interjected into the meat of the film worked their way into my heart.

Bollywood has been throwing its hat into the horror ring for decades too, with 1949’s Mahal, said to be the first true Hindi horror film, the ghostly comedy Bhoot Bungla from 1965, and coming to the forefront in the 70’s with the Ramsay Brothers fun and schlocky low-budget horror films.  There are a couple of cool short YouTube clips about the brothers and their impact on the horror genre in India: Part One and Part Two.  They opened the floodgates for modern horror, and now there are many, many films drawing on things that go bump in the night Bollywood style.

(Unfortunately, Bhoot doesn’t seem to have a proper trailer with subtitles, but watch this one for the feel of the film.)

One of the more memorable films for me is Bhoot (Ghost). Directed by Bollywood’s controversial horror maverick Ram Gopal Varma, this 2003 multiple award winner tells the story of a man who scores an apartment for a steal due to its previous resident’s suicide.  Things get weird when his wife is tormented by the former resident’s ghost.  It impressed me with the creepy atmosphere, nary a traditional musical number, and could stand up to any J-horror at the time.  Unfortunately, I would soon change jobs, and access to films weren’t as easy as sifting through returned items.  I fell off the Bollywood bandwagon until my sister, who still has her finger on the Bollywood pulse, recently passed 2013’s  Ek Thi Dayaan (There Was A Witch) my way.  She swore up and down that it was one of the better, less schlocky horrors she’s seen in a long time, so the horror boyfriend and I settled in for the 2 hours and 15 minutes of foreign horror fun.

Adapted from a short story Mobius Trips by Mukul Sharma, Ek Thi Dayaan tells the tale of celebrity magician Bobo the Baffler (Emraan Hashmi), India’s answer to Criss Angel and David Blaine, who has a dark past.  He’s haunted by his sister Misha who died when he was just a boy, but he can’t remember any details of her death.  His doting girlfriend Tamara (Huma Qureshi) wants to get married and adopt Zubin (Bhavesh Balchandani), a boy they befriended at a nearby school, but his distant demeanor and jumpy nature puts a damper on their plans for the future.  To move forward, Bobo decides to get to the bottom of his fears.  Visiting his childhood psychiatrist, he succumbs to a hypnotic trance to access those memories.

Those memories leave him even more confused than before, but he pieces enough together from his buried past.  After losing their mother, 11-year-old Bobo and his younger sister (Sara Arjun) try to make a life for themselves with their doting father Sharan (Pawan Malhotra).  Bobo is preoccupied with a book on the occult, and decides that a finicky elevator in his building is a direct ride to Hell.  When he and his sister fool with the elevator, a mysterious woman named Diana (Konkona Sen Sharma) appears.  She immediately charms his father who invites her to be their governess, and soon his wife.  Bobo is determined not to like her, and mistrusts her to the point where he believes she is a witch and out to sacrifice them.  When a double tragedy destroys the family forever, Bobo has to face his childhood delusions and trust that the deaths that stole his innocence and family wasn’t the end result of supernatural forces.

That’s the film in a spoiler-free nutshell, but there are plenty of juicy details in between.  Being a Bollywood film, there’s a quick interval between the first and second hours (which is actually a shorter film than usual.  Most clock in at 2 ½ to 3 hours).  In this case, it’s as if director Kannan Iyer presents 2 different films.  Bobo’s recounting of his childhood has a Harry Potter-esque feel to it, while the second half embraces a more traditional horror film, bringing up distant comparisons to Rosemary’s Baby, and even Anabelle.  Once you get past the slightly ridiculous name of the main character and focus on the musical numbers (of course!), some cool special effects and fun jump scares, you’ll find yourself with a great contemporary South Asian horror film.

While the story gets a bit patchy from time to time, the production value is fantastic, and the performances aren’t of the usual Bollywood fare; bringing a touch more substance than you would expect.  It seems that the horror genre gives a lot of theatrical wiggle room for the performers to explore. The kids in the first half were quite good, and there’s some great possession performances later on in the film.

One fun fact that caught my eye was the disclaimer at the beginning of the film stating that the filmmakers don’t stereotype women as witches.  This strikes me as a really interesting angle.  Even though the witch myth has been used to keep women’s power at bay, from a feminist view, the disclaimer actually acknowledges the mistreatment of women throughout the ages globally, and specifically in India, that have been ostracized or accused of being witches for being childless, widowed or single.  In a 2013 interview, Iyer mentions that he went to great lengths to avoid the typical village dayaan or witch folklore, and the disclaimer also puts an enlightened spin on it as well.

While Robert Egger’s The Witch (2015) divided a whole legion of horror fans, I think Ek Thi Dayaan is a supernatural crowd pleaser that bypasses the usual Bollywood melodramatic themes and gives you lots of witchy chills.  It’s got some decent horror aspects, a great plot twist and a haunting theme song you’ll catch yourself humming as the end credits roll.

*I mentioned the singing and dancing in Bollywood films, but movie music is actually a huge industry in India.  In most of the films, the songs are sung by “playback artists”, or  professional session singers while the movie stars lip sync the lyrics.  The songs are just as important as the film itself, with a soundtrack often being the driving force for making a film a box office hit.  Composers and singers like legendary A. R. Rahman, Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bosle created memorable melodies marking a film’s time in the spotlight.  Ek Thi Dayaan is no exception.  Here’s that haunting theme song Kaali Kaali sung by Clinton Cerejo and written by well-known composer and director Gulzar.  It basically talks about the magic a man finds in his lover’s eyes and how he’s bewitched by her and the treasures she hides there.  It’s actually much more romantic with the full translation, which you can find here.

(Previously published on Rosemary’s Pixie.)