Us

Back in 1998, M.Night Shyamalan was dubbed the second coming of either Hitchcock or Spielberg.  With his well crafted thriller “The Sixth Sense” he restored our faith in what a good horror movie could be and he provided a twist ending that still impresses twenty years and a million spoilers later. He made two more solid films before he tripped with “The Village” and then fell flat on his face with “Lady in the Water”. But it took “The Happening” for audiences to laugh him off the screen and write him off for the next decade. Director Jordan Peele was favorably compared to Shyamalan after his clever and very successful “Get Out” showed up two years ago. It also restored our faith in grown up horror stories and had similar kinds of plot twist moments. Peele however has skipped the next phase of the Shyamalan career, a couple of less successful but still credible films, and he has instead taken a dump that makes “The Happening” look like a modern classic.

I cannot express how disappointed I was at this film as I was watching it unfold. This is a miscalculation by someone who is clearly talented but did not seem to have anything to say with his next film project. “Get Out” had something to show us about race relations and class in a post Obama world. It was also creepy as hell for the first hour and incredibly intense in the second. “Us” does not have the benefit of a whole hour of slow burn, it shoots it’s wad in the first ten minutes and then never reaches another moment as effectively again. Oh, and the set up that had the brief flash of excitement and fright to it, was not that great in the opening anyway, which made the movie all the less interesting as it went along. If there is some cultural, political or dramatic concept that this movie is trying to make or subvert, it fails on every point.

A horror movie can make you laugh at a moment as a release from some tension or thrill that it provides. The catharsis such a moment brings is just what an audience wants. If a horror movie is making you laugh at it’s premise and the stupidity of the events in the story, you have a bad horror film. That is what you get with this. If you have seen the trailer, you know that a doppelganger family appears to start a home invasion story with our protagonist family. The moment one of those characters starts to speak I had to suppress a laugh, but when another character starts uttering call back sounds, it not only is guffaw inducing, it is ludicrous.  If you are not being terrified by a horror film, why are you watching it? That’s the question I started to ask myself along the way. I also asked myself how much worse it could get, and the answer was…a lot.

The actors do their best, Lupita Nyong’o in the lead duo role is effective, but her doppelganger character is given some silly exposition to deliver and it is presented in a voice that instead of being frightening, makes you want to get her some Nyquil for her stuffy nose. Winston Duke fairs better but not by much. He fortunately spends less time in the doppelganger role and he also comes the closest to being a real person in the story. He is a goofball of a Dad, which is of course the preferred way to present an adult male in a family these days. He says the wrong thing to calm down his wife, he is a bit of a joke to his kids, and the whole powerboat subplot exits to create a single scene that allows him to have a moment of success by accident.

If you stretch your imagination enough, there might be some kind of social commentary about keeping up with appearances. The family friends that they connect with seem like cardboard cutout shallow people. Elizabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker feel unpleasant from the moment that we meet them. Their twin daughters are stereotyped mean girls without actually doing anything mean. When the story shifts to them for a few minutes in the middle of the film, it has no tension to it and it only feels different in how quickly events play out and how well everything is lit because they have a back up power generator and the other family does not.

You want to know that you are getting into a bad film that takes itself too seriously, look for an opening scroll that tries to tell you that there is some real idea behind the hoopla. If you think that abandoned subways and tunnels are the lurking places of the bogey man, then maybe you can be convinced that this story is real, HA. Remember how Mark Wahlberg spent an hour running away from the wind in “The Happening”? And do you recall how you laughed out loud when you found out the monsters are the trees? Well that resolution is brilliant compared to the explanation we get here. I have not found rabbits so silly since bugs bunny, and the fear factor in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” is eons ahead of this. There is of course a final twist that makes everything that came earlier seem even more preposterous.

In fairness I have to admit that I have not cared for two celebrated horror films of the last few years. “Hereditary” had a lot of visual spark to it but the storytelling fell apart for me. “Cabin in the Woods” is a joke that might work for twenty minutes but takes two hours to get to the punchline. Those movies had moments but “Us” did not work for me at all.  Let’s hope that Jordan Peele doesn’t screw up “The Twilight Zone” and that his next movie stays out of the water [like M. Night should have done.]

AMC Best Picture Showcase Day 2

So just a few random thoughts on the Best Picture Selections this year. Last week we watched two films with Lucas Hedges back to back. He was in “Lady Bird” and “Three Billboards”. Timothée Chalamet was in “Lady Bird” and today’s “Call Me By Your Name”.  Nick Searcy was in “Three Billboards” and “The Shape of Water”. Today we had Bradley Whitford in back to back “The Post” and “Get Out”. Finally Michael Stuhlbarg was in “The Shape of Water, “Call Me By Your Name” and “The Post”. These actors have got to have great agents to get into the top pictures of the year not just once, but two and three times.

“Phantom Thread” and “The Post” were the two films I needed to catch up on, and while I admired them both, I don’t see either of them as a likely winner in the big category. “Phantom Thread” lacks anybody likable in the cast of characters, and “The Post” is so traditional that it won this award two years ago when it was called “Spotlight”.

Speaking of actors who appeared back to back in some of the films on the program, we had a historical event do exactly the same thing. “Dunkirk” was followed by “Darkest Hour” and it was almost as if Joe Wright’s film was just another segment of the Christopher Nolan film. It’s Title Card would read Parliament: Two Weeks.

I feel confident in my choice of “Dunkirk” as the best film of last year but I am not at all confident that the Academy will go along with me. 

Dunkirk   Christopher Nolan’s film was the most visually impressive, forward moving, and meaningful film of the lot. Listening to the score and watching how he masterfully integrated three separate time lines into a single narrative with clever overlaps and great timing, I know that this was the best directing job this year. Nothing against Guillermo Del Toro, but this complex story, logistical nightmare and historical memorial is simple better constructed than the odd fish love story. This is a film that tells a real historical story that will last long after the fashion of the fairy tale set in a mythological era in U.S. history, is a charming oddity. 

Some people complain that the characters here are not well developed, that is true. This however is not a character piece but a prism on the events that were taking place during a military disaster that became a turning point in a manner that was most unexpected. 

Darkest Hour  This film was even stronger the second time I saw it. The first viewing I was overpowered by Gary Oldman’s performance. He will surely be the winner in the acting category. I admired the film before but I have come to really respect it on this second encounter. Joe Wright manages to make a tale of political intrigue into a fascinating study of a character and the country who’s character he came to represent for the duration of the war. The one clumsy moment is a scene set in an underground train car. The only reason it is clumsy is that it feels so distinct from everything else, like a deliberate movie moment. That shows that the rest of the movie does exist as something more than the typical fare.  But even that scene works emotionally because it bespeaks of a real sense of what the British people felt at the time. 

Call Me By Your Name  I am being a little facetious when I say this film is a pain in the neck. That’s because in the first half I went to sleep and got a crick that is staining my muscles still. My least favorite of the nominees, this film is slow moving, meandering and confounding. I felt like I was listening to a play frequently, with dialogue written eloquently but sounding artificial. A couple of podcasters that I listen to love this film and especially the sequence with Michael Stuhlbarg as the father of Elio, consoling his son on the “special” friendship he had with Oliver. It ends on s deliberately false note when the Dad tells his son that he doesn’t think that Mom knows about the nature of their friendship. The mom had just picked up a near weeping Elio at the train station and she dropped hints for the previous hour that she knew how special Elio thought Oliver was. When Mr. Perlman says he never had a relationship with anyone like Elio had with Oliver, we can believe him because he so obtusely ignores how insightful his wife is. This will probably win the Screenplay Award, and it shouldn’t, if it takes the big prize I might yell loud enough to ruin my voice for a month.  

The Post  So this was the one new film we saw on day two. This has the phrase “Oscar Bait” pasted all over it. It features Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, a ton of high end supporting players and it was directed by Steven Spielberg. The subject matter concerns the fight of the press against preemptive shut down of news publication. It is a first amendment issue that was understandably important, yet at the same time it ignores some pretty egregious behavior. We can always applaud someone after the fact when their actions seem just and there was no blow-back,  but there were issues regarding the acquisition of the Pentagon Papers that probably still need to be discussed.  Spielberg and co-screenwriters Josh Singer and Liz Hannah, manage to make a bureaucratic legal process look and sound like a courtroom drama with some mystery tied in.  Singer in particular is working on familiar ground since he won an Academy Award two years ago for a very similarly structured newspaper story “Spotlight”.

This is supposed to be a resistance film, about the Media vs. the President in a time when everyone wants to be standing up to the current administration. The parallels are not really there to give this much resonance. This is a two hour commercial for the Washington Post and the heavy handed feminist slant in some of the visuals makes it feel too much like a lecture at times. That said, it is well made and the John Williams score is excellent as usual. Because “Bridge of Spies” and “Spotlight” are just a couple of years old however, this feels like it is old territory and not quite as distinctive as it needs to be. 

Get Out  This one is the outlier. You rarely get a horror film nominated for Best Picture, but if you do, it is usually more of a big budget film. This Jordan Peele written and directed film seemed to come in under the radar, it made a huge splash, and it is getting some end of the year accolades. The intersectionality of this film is in keeping with all the film buffs who are much more woke than I am. I just enjoyed the twist and the characters in the film. Rod from TSA is a saving grace that adds more straightforward humor to the mix. Instead of a haunted house we get a upscale suburban plantation. The need for subtlety on the race subject is probably eliminated by the DNA of the movie. Being an outsider in an nearly all white environment makes Chris, our lead character played by nominated actor Daniel Kaluuya, mildly uncomfortable but also keenly aware of how different the culture he is visiting is. 

While most people will consider the “Sunken Place” to be the most horrifying image in the film, to me it is the silent auction with bingo cards. We still don’t know what is going on, but the suggestion is truly awful. Seeing it for a second time, I could pay more attention to some of the interesting choices that were made. Grandma and  Grandpa are certainly clever twists, although it seems strange that for the duration of Chris being a guest, the force required to hold those characters would be counter-intuitive to the actual plan. The creepy factor also takes Chris a little too long to respond to. His buddy is right, and he should be listening to him sooner. There is an outside chance this could take the award, the voting system gives weight to the number of ballots a film appears on, and this would be a popular ad to the list but not necessarily high on the list. Should it when I expect to see some “Get Out” Memes that mine the fertile teen speak use of the terminology. 

As an aside, let me rant about the misquotes being used to decorate the entry way to the theater. Both “Cool Hand Luke” and “Jaws” are misquoted in the floor below. 

Get Out

Last night I had a disappointing experience. We decided to watch a horror film and we chose “The VVitch” because we’d heard a lot of positive things about it. Maybe it works for other people but I was not happy. In fact I found it quite irritating in the way the story gets resolved, or at least sort of resolved. Today, to wash the bad memory out of my brain, we picked another widely acclaimed horror film. This movie is more contemporary and it has an interesting perspective on the world. I’d seen the trailer and I was afraid it was going to be a polemic on white privilege, instead, the movie twists the idea of cultural appropriation in a way that is totally off the wall and satisfying.

Daniel Kaluuya is a name I did not recognize, but he was in a movie I saw a couple of years ago, “Kick Ass 2”. His part in that movie was not significant, but his role in this movie is impressive. He is the lead and he carries most of the drama and horror of the film on his shoulders. The only thing I know Allison Williams from is the highly criticized Peter Pan Live form a couple of years ago. She was also very good in this film and her character has surprising elements to it that will turn the story at some points. Three other well known old timers are also in the cast. Bradley Whitford from the West Wing and “Cabin in the Woods” plays the neurosurgeon father of Rose, the white girl that is dating Kaluuya’s character Chris. Dad is just enough of a social justice liberal to be disarming, but still he and his wife player by Catherine Keener, are just a little off.  Mom is a psychiatrist who uses hypnotherapy to help clients deal with smoking and other issues. At first they seem just a little odd but as time passes, Chris begins to listen to the doubts that he might be expected to have as a lonely black face in a well off suburban neighborhood. The third character played by an old hand is Jim Hudson, another blind character played by Steven Root. He turns out to be a key element of the reveal when it shows up.

 

The slow burn creep factor in this movie is exquisitely patient. We know things are off but we have no idea exactly what is going on. Chris gets warnings from his friend Rod, who is concerned about him going into the country with all the white people.  Rose is supportive in the way a girlfriend ought to be, but she is also a bit nonplussed by the potential of her black boyfriend meeting her parents without their knowledge of his background. All of the family friends that show up at the parents house are also a little too awkward and direct about Chris and his ethnic difference. There are a couple of disturbing or frightening scenes that involve the servants at the house, and there is definitely a Stepford Wives feel to the goings on.

The twist comes and it is a dozy. Suddenly things are more frightening than they might have appeared and the story gets clever with the social conventions but maybe a little to direct with the horror elements. Rod gets some great sequences that add some comic moments to the film, and that makes the story feel a lot more believable than it otherwise would have. I can’t give away anything, it’s not my style to do so, but I can say that the story is a lot more satisfying than the psychological supernatural film I saw last night. The wrap up to this film may be more conventional, but at least it feels like it is part of the story that we have been watching.

Writer /Director Jordan Peele is a guy I recognize but I have not really paid much attention to. I have seen the routine with the substitute teacher, in fact, I plan on using it in my classes. As an actor, I remember him from the “Fargo” TV series, as one of the FBI guys who screws up massively. This film shows that his talent is not limited to comedy and he clearly understands the check points for a good horror film. This probably does not need any recommendation from me, the movie is doing good business after all, but I will be telling anyone who will listen, this is worth your time. As I said to my daughter at the end of the film, “Now that’s how you make a horror film!”.