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Us (2019)

I think it’s important to state that Us is not Get Out and that’s perfectly okay. Not every movie can be a Get Out, an experience that was so refreshing, socially relevant, wickedly fun and dynamic that I immediately wanted to see it again and tell everyone I know to join in. Writer/director Jordan Peele shed his funnyman past and flexed his impressive genre know-how to make a knockout of a movie with an amazingly structured story, allowing all of the pieces to snap together with clever precision. It was my own second favorite film of 2017 and I was highly looking forward to Peele’s follow-up in the realm of what goes bump in the night. Don’t go into Us expecting Get Out. It’s not quite the sum of its parts and has some storytelling shortcomings that limit the impact of its visceral thrills. It’s an engaging horror movie, but it’s far more allegorical and far less tidy and satisfying.

The Wilson family is spending their summer vacation at a rental home in Santa Cruz, California. Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) and her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) are trying to enjoy a getaway with their children, teenage daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and young son Jason (Evan Alex), when strange coincidences keep occurring. This is the same beach town where many years ago Adelaide had a traumatic childhood experience getting lost from her bickering parents. Then one night Jason informs his family that there’s another family standing in their driveway. The Wilson family is hounded by mysterious doppelgangers, each a cracked mirror version of themselves. This new family wants what the Wilsons have and will use any bloody means to see that they get it.

Us is more a straight horror film and has plenty of excellent, terrifying, and smartly directed scenes to make an audience squirm in their seat. Peele has established in two movies a strong instinct for horror and how to expertly stage a scene. His camera is judicious in what it does and does not show the audience, holding onto moments to escalate tension and providing no escape for an eager audience. The majority of the second act is a home invasion thriller and these scenes and subsequent chases and escapes can be nerve-wracking. Each character has their own opponent and each has their own method of trying to outsmart or out maneuver their downtrodden doppelganger. I was getting plenty of Funny Games vibes, a movie I downright despise, but what it could have been if the creator actually cared about the inhabitants. The family and their bonding is a strong empathetic anchor for the audience, so we watch each member of the family battle a literal incarnation of their inner demons. Peele also assembles an effective collection of spooky imagery, from caged rabbits, to the slice of golden scissors, to a carnival funhouse, to even the nature of that 80s social event, Hands Across America. You can sense Peele’s love of horror and the entertainment value horror movies afford. There’s a strong central mystery to guide the narrative and the sense of discovery from Act Two onward keeps things fresh as we learn more and more about these doubles.

From a technical craft standpoint, Us has the upper hand over Get Out. This is a movie that wants to scare you and Peele has devoted great consideration into his artistic elements to achieve that key principle. Peele knows exactly how to craft a particular mood and what genre elements to pepper in and to what amount for the right response. The photography by Mike Gioulakis (It Follows) is evocative and makes great use of limited light to capture an eerie and unsettling feeling. The musical score by Michael Abels is also exceptional, making the most of each heightened scene and doing wonders with a dark, operatic version of the chill 90s song “I Got 5 On It” by Luniz. It makes for a fun, frightening, and favorable film experience in the moment-to-moment sequences of build and release.

The performances are another strength, with each member of the family getting extra range thanks to their dual roles. Nyong’o (Black Panther, 12 Years a Slave) is the standout and emotional center of the movie. Her double is the leader of her clan and the only one that has the ability to speak, except speaking isn’t quite the right word. It’s more like the words escape her throat, raspy and without intonation. It’s a remarkable commitment on her part and she tries a lot of weird character tics, most of them work, from her herky-jerky to robotically possessed physical movements, unblinking eyes, and then there’s that startling voice. Duke (Black Panther) finds his footing as a comedic foil, starting as a corny but loving dad and thrust into a family defender that gets more and more tired of the horror movie nonsense he endures. The kids all do solid, effective work with what they’re given, seizing their moments. Elizabeth Moss (The Handmaid’s Tale) plays a bourgeoisie friend and has a fantastic moment with lip gloss that made me horrified and entranced all at once.

This is where the merits of the film start running into conflict with Peele’s muddled intentions and messy execution toward the finish. As I said, it’s far more allegorical in approach; meaning for the longest time it seems to be a film outside the bounds of literal interpretation. That’s fine since many horror films rely upon a heaping helping of metaphor for larger implications. I was prepared for Us to stay in this creative territory. Except Peele makes a late decision to squeeze his movie into a bizarre and distracting middle ground, where it feels like the metaphor is the real message, if you can decode it. Once you stand back and assess the full Us, it doesn’t hold together in allegory or explanation.

Even hours after seeing the movie, I cannot say whatsoever what the intended theme is for Us, and this really befuddles me since Get Out was laser-focused in this regard. Peele isn’t just cranking out fun, throwaway genre movies, he’s trying to make statements through horror and elevating the genre in artistic ways. Get Out postulated how being a black man in America was like living in a horror movie and a Stepford Wives-meets-Being John Malkovich commentary on the usurpation of minority agency and the commodification of black bodies. It’s not every day that a horror movie wins an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, let alone deserves it, and Peele’s treatise on race relations was perfectly structured, each piece snapping together and better informing the whole, with setups and payoffs galore, and at its heart was its relevant message. With Us, I don’t really know what Peele is trying to say here. There’s a simple duality theme but that seems pretty weak and underdeveloped. There may be a have/have not inequality discussion but this gets into trouble in the final act (more on that below). I don’t think race even factors into the overall message, as a late turn reveals that the doppelgangers extend beyond our central African-American family. What is Peele trying to say with Us? I’m at a real loss and I’m trying to process that confusion and my own expectations.

This might have worked better had Peele not elected to supply a hasty sci-fi explanation for why things are the way they are, and in the process he strands his film in a contentious middle zone that tries to find a logical context to plant his allegory. I won’t get into what exactly the details of this explanation are but suffice to say it doesn’t really hold together and invites far more questions, each one picking apart the reality of the film, which disintegrates at an ever-increasing speed. How far-reaching is this conspiracy? What is the ultimate goal? How do these people think they will win? Why now? There’s also a big twist ending that should be obvious for anyone paying attention, but what makes this decision worse is not that it’s predictable but that it hardly sheds any new dimension to what came before. It doesn’t really change our reading of certain people because of the time it happened and so the big meaning is its existence as a twist. It doesn’t redefine the narrative in the way that great twists should. It might play into a larger thematic point except, as described above, that area is hard to ascertain. The last third of Us gives a sense of scope and rationale but the movie also loses its form, trading in dream logic and then trying to provide a new real world context that cannot hold.

Friends have already asked me whether Us is a good movie, and I’ve found myself saying, “Yes, but…” Peele’s follow-up left me with more questions than answers and a nagging sense of dissatisfaction that began to eat away at my otherwise good time in the theater. Us has some fantastic moments and tense scares but I cannot say what its muddled theme is, the hazy explanation doesn’t really work, and the overall intent left me perplexed. It’s an evocative horror movie with solid to great performances from a very game cast of characters. Given its more free-floating plot, it feels like the kind of movie that would hold together by a strong thematic core. I think most people will leave Us somewhat scratching their heads and wondering what it was all about, but not as an accessible puzzle to decode. It’s more a puzzle that doesn’t resemble the picture on the box and is frustratingly missing a few too many pieces to come together.

Nate’s Grade: B

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The Strangers: Prey at Night (2018)

Coming ten years too late, the inane sequel to The Strangers is a home invasion thriller that was so bad that I had to stop it five separate times to collect myself. It’s about a boring family that takes a vacation (?) to a trailer park (?) and is terrorized by mask-wearing strangers who insist on killing set to diegetic 80s pop music (?). Seriously, the music is part of the scene and these imbecilic killers almost have an OCD-level compulsion to have to listen to their kickin’ tunes when they’re kicking in heads. One killer literally won’t leave a car radio until he gets that exact right soundtrack. This is the only aspect of note in what is otherwise a thoroughly rote slasher film. At one point one of the killers is going to be unmasked and the film plays it up as great reveal? Who could it be? Oh, it’s nobody, because the anonymity is the point but the movie forgot. I paused this movie to give myself a break and only 20 minutes had passed! Here’s another example of the bad plotting: we have a teen girl kicked out of school for some rebellious, disciplinary action. Surely, you would assume, that in the final act, she will make use of this same skill to save herself, you know attaching a payoff to a setup. This never happens. It’s just one poorly executed attack sequence after another with nothing to offer but forced irony. It feels like random scenes that just stretch and stretch and it’s hard to even bother paying attention. The kills are lame, the suspense set pieces are dumb, and the attackers are boring. How the hell do these people get the jump on everybody? It’s like they can choose to make sound or not. Listen for the looming 80s soundtrack as a giveaway, people. The Strangers: Prey at Night is worth burying in the past.

Grade: D-

Life of the Party (2018)/ Breaking In (2018)

Just in time for Mother’s Day weekend comes two eminently bland, safe, and unmemorable movies that generally waste their female stars. Melissa McCarthy has proven herself one of the most funny and dynamic performers in comedy, but Life of the Party is a listless and groan-inducing back-to-school comedy that feels tonally off, adopting the persona of its tacky, talky, and awkward middle-aged mother. You would think the premise would lead to plenty of R-rated shenanigans, but instead the film adopts a very sedate PG-13 atmosphere, dulling the wild collegiate experience into something so predictable and safe as to be completely inoffensive. It feels like a caricature reminiscent of a feature-length rendition of a Saved by the Bell: The College Years. McCarthy falls back on tired, corny jokes that don’t attempt to be anything else, and the supporting cast is left to gasp and grasp for anything to spark laughs (special credit Gillian Jacobs for doing everything possible as “coma girl”). McCarthy is best when given room to improvise and discover interesting odd angles for jokes, but she also needs a stronger comedic vision, and that’s not going to come from husband/co-writer/director Ben Falcone (Tammy). It feels like they had a general outline for a comedy and, in grand collegiate tradition, pulled an all-nighter and sloppily finished a serviceable draft. I chuckled about four times, mostly involving an exuberant Maya Rudolph and the one clever structural payoff revolving around a much younger fraternal hookup. Mostly, Life of the Party lacks a sense of stakes, credibility, surprises, development, and laughs, though the middle-aged mothers in my preview screening lapped it up, so take my opinion with a grain of salt if the trailer seemed moderately appealing for you.

On the other side, Breaking In is a mundane, low-budget home invasion thriller that disappears almost instantly from memory. I’m struggling to even come up with enough to say in this review that isn’t just repetitions of the word “boring.” Gabrielle Union (Bring it On) plays a mom who brings her two children to visit the estate of her recently deceased, estranged father. Also visiting is a trio of stupid robbers searching for a hidden stash of money. They take the kids hostage though keep them locked in a room and in little danger. Union’s determined mother must break in and save her children. It’s a thriller without anything genuinely thrilling to experience, as each chase or near miss hums along ineptly and tediously, finding the least interesting conclusion. There are no well-drawn suspense set pieces to quicken the pulse, no clever escapes or near-misses, no intriguing villains with strong personalities, and no entertainment to be had through its strained 88 minutes. There are glaring plot holes, chief among them why doesn’t she just flag down a car and call the police rather than hack it alone. Depressingly, Breaking In is actually directed by James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) who seems to have exhausted any sense of style and excitement he may have had earlier in his directing career. It feels like nobody really cared about the movie they were making, and that lack of enthusiasm and effort translates into one very boring and very poorly written and executed thriller. Union deserved a better showcase but, then again, the audience deserved a better movie too.

Nate’s Grades:

Life of the Party: C-

Breaking In: D+

No Good Deed (2014)

MV5BMzk0OTc3MDM5MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTMzMDMzMjE@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_AL_Truthfully, I likely never would have seen No Good Deed in the theater if it weren’t for two events. It’s not that it looked especially heinous, just ordinary and not worth rushing out to see. The first event was my father’s newfound love of Idris Elba (Pacific Rim, Mandela) as an actor, an appreciation I too share for the charismatic leading man. The other event is a tad uncommon. Being part of a critics group, I regularly get e-mails from publicists about upcoming screenings. At the last minute, I received an e-mail informing me that an advanced screening was canceled, but what piqued my curiosity was the stated reason: there was a late twist/reveal that the studio did not want getting out. Really? What appeared on the surface like an ordinary home invasion thriller suddenly became a tad more intriguing, tempting my mind with possibilities. And so, with all of this achieved, I watched No Good Deed waiting to be surprised. My lack of surprise was the only real surprise, because just as I believed, this is your standard home invasion thriller that wastes the talents and time of just about everyone on screen.

Colin Evans (Elba) is a very bad man serving a five-year prison sentence for assault, though it’s believed he’s responsible for several missing women and former girlfriends. During his parole hearing he escapes and heads to his ex-girlfriend’s (Kate del Castillo) home. Colin doesn’t appreciate that she’s moved on to another man, and so he strangles her to death. He then leaves and drives off the road, an accident as the result of a powerful thunderstorm rolling through Atlanta. He comes to the door of Terri (Taraji P. Henson), a mother and wife whose husband is away. He asks to use her phone and then take shelter from the storm. She lets him inside. Big mistake.

no-good-deed-640Doggedly formulaic, there is nothing about this story that separates it from the rest of the tired, dim-witted thrillers that prey upon fears of home invaders. If you removed the high-wattage stars from the film it would be completely at home on the quality-starved Lifetime Network, another poorly made suspense thriller about a bad man stalking a woman with subtle allusions to punishment for viewing the man as a sensual, dangerous opportunity. I was able to accurately guess every step of this story and I imagine you will have no problem with it as well (more on that “twist” later). How come there are no news stories about an escaped and violent convict? Colin severs the phone cords… but does nobody have cell phones in the neighborhood? In the opening credits, both Elba and Henson are listed as executive producers, which means that they attached themselves to this project because they wanted it to get made. They used their collective power to ensure this story would leap ahead of the thousands of other notable and compelling scripts in Hollywood (ahem). And the big question is why? I suppose there may be some fun from an acting standpoint to play such stock thriller roles as brooding boogeyman and bewildered ingénue. Except there’s nothing to these one-note characters. The screenplay does the minimal amount of effort to establish them as victim and victimizer, but you’ll never care about them or find them slightly interesting. Terri keeps making dumb decision after dumb decision; when you bash the bad guy in the head, you don’t stop after one blow. She’s a former prosecutor who worked in the homicide division, and yet she seems absentminded when interacting with mysterious strangers that appear in the dead of night at her doorstep. She’s lacking all street smarts. There’s nothing that sets apart Colin either (that name is a non-starter as far as striking fear). For a supposedly charismatic and brilliant narcissist, he doesn’t do anything that smart.

I’ll highlight the small handful of moments that stood out to me, which will include the ending and that presaged “twist.” Henson is 44 years old and a very good-looking woman, though it’s a tad odd when the movie contorts to place her in a T&A scenario. Colin, covered in fire hydrant discharge, insists she get in the shower with him so he can get clean. For the remainder of the sequence, the terrified Henson is shaking in her white tank top, her body alerting us to her cold. When was the last time a woman six years away from 50 was purposely squeezed into a moment of gratuitous titillation, let alone a non-white actress? Another part about Terri is that she’s a mother, a fact that Colin routinely relies upon with veiled threats of harm to her little ones. The funny part about all of this is when she has to sneak around the house that Terri has to grab her 4-year-old with one arm and the baby carriage with another, creating an awkwardly comical image. And it happens again and again. She sets the kids down, then goes back to carry them out, and then repeats. It made me laugh every time because it’s just so unwieldy. Another example of the botched screenwriting: Terri has a baby and at no point in the film does the conflict of keeping the baby quiet surface. She has to quiet the child or else Colin will find them. It’s a natural setup with such a young baby. Instead the baby is completely silent for the entire movie, peacefully sleeping though lots of physical activity, screaming, gunshots, a thunderstorm, and tree branches smashing through windows. This baby is unreal. How could this never be utilized? Again, more wasted potential, whatever slight potential there was to start with.

1_NoGoodDeed-maxresdefault-2But this brings us to the so-called twist, which I will obligingly refer to with spoilers but rest assured, if this is the working definition of twists nowawadays, we’re all getting a little too carried away. When Colin takes Terri and her kids back to his dead ex-girlfriend’s home, the recently murdered woman’s phone rings. Who’s on the other end? Shocker, it’s Terri’s husband, who has been having an affair with this same woman. And… that’s it. That’s the twist, which is really more of a plot reveal but nothing along the magnitude of a “Bruce Willis is dead” revelation. As it happened, I thought, “Okay, that can’t be it, can it?” Oh, it was. What’s even more frustrating is that No Good Deed doesn’t build off this reveal. Colin was headed over to Terri’s address to make her husband suffer, but then what? Afterwards, Terri runs around the house and eventually dispatches Colin, and the movie ends with her moving out on her own, essentially the least complicated and most boring ending it could formulate. My father had a far more morbid rewrite that I’ll share with you, dear reader. His version would climax with the husband coming home and Colin casually murdering Terri and both of her young children, leaving bad hubby to forever suffer with guilt over the repercussions of his infidelity. While this ending would be controversial, it makes more sense in connecting the plot beats and at least stands on its own. At least it would be memorable.

No Good Deed isn’t a horrendous movie. It’s just dull from start to finish, never attempting to be anything beyond a mediocre thriller. Its complete lack of ambition is even more upsetting with the quality of actors who helped to get this film made. The direction is hackneyed, the visuals are poorly lit and clumsy, and the thrills are too generic and often stupid to be entertaining. The characters are dumb, the story is dumb, and the movie is dumb. Worst of all, it’s boring, the ultimate sin for a thriller. Unless you’re hard up for some precious Taraji P. Henson T&A (and no judgment, she’s a very beautiful woman), there’s no good reason to venture out and catch No Good Deed.

Nate’s Grade: C-

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