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.]

Glass

I’m afraid I feel compelled to start my comments here with a bad joke. My opinion on this film is not as clear as a pane of…oh, you know.  There was a lot that I liked about the concept, set up and visualizations here, but there are plot holes, trails not followed and an ending that is frustratingly opaque. “Glass” should be better than it is, but in many ways I don’t think it can. M. Night Shyamalan has created a set up for his super hero epic, but stops short of committing to the characters he created to continue his mythologizing of comic books. I suspect a lot of people will be pissed off at this.

I was a fan of “Unbreakable” when it arrived 19 years ago. The notion that a sequel might be coming was appealing but not essential to me. I pretty much got the point of that story and it felt complete. After pitting out with some films that are reviled by film fans, Shyamalan seemed to redeem himself with an effective thriller with “Split” two years ago. In a surprise, as the film was wrapping, it is revealed that this story was taking place in the same world as “Unbreakable” and it set up this sequel with just a little bit of effort. The problem he now faced is making that set up pay off.

To begin with, the return of Bruce Willis in a film by Shyamalan is promising. A couple of hours before going to see this, I watched the “Death Wish” remake from last year. Willis seemed to be sleepwalking through that part, but here he feels more invested and his grizzled beard and careworn face match the super hero character in the shadows that he is representing.  The opening section of this film re-establishes his David Dunn as “The Overseer” a mysterious vigilante who punishes lawbreakers and tries to protect those in jeopardy. David works in conjunction with his son, who has become the guy in the headset to his father’s avenger. I think a stand alone story of David’s life as this character would have worked pretty well a decade ago. It would also give us a chance to see how important the discovery of a real superhero would be to a community. Alas, we only get the most effective scenes in this movie, the stalking of the neighborhood in search of “the Horde”, and the rescue of four potential victims of “the Beast”. Having the grown actor who played David’s son Joe in “Unbreakable” return to be his partner works well and gives a sense of continuity to a story with a nineteen year gap.

James McAvoy repeats his impressive trick of channeling multiple personalities through the one body that we know exists. There is a little bit more of a carnival trick to the performance in this film with the rapidity with which he must change characters. It’s almost like a voice over actor, doing all of the characters they voice, in a conversation. It is amazing, but it does feel a bit like a trained seal act. One of the drawbacks of the script is that we never really get to understand this character because it changes so often, Just as we start to get a sense of motivation, the personality switches and it becomes cloudy as to why things are happening. “the Beast” becomes a coherent character at one point, rather than just the monster that all the others were in fear of. If this is the dominant personality and it took complete control, maybe our interest level would be a bit higher.

This is a very talky picture. While in the first section of the movie, there are a couple of action scenes, the second act is all slow burn set up with Samuel Jackson’s Mr. Glass playing a somnambulist villain, lying in wait to spring his plan. Shyamalan is honest enough to leave a trail of bread crumbs so that the twists of the escape and subsequent confrontation are justified, but there in lies the problem.  Having been so meticulous with laying that groundwork, he turns right around and violates that trust with another pivotal character. The fourth lead in this story turns out to be a critical element of the climax of the film, but that is not set up at all. What appears on the surface to be a passive agenda of discovery turns out to be the main plot of the film and it just doesn’t work well.

As I dance around spoilers and sharing reveals, it is a little difficult to ignore some plot holes that might foreshadow the twist. The psychiatric institution that the characters all occupy, is the least populated facility you can imagine. The security for supposedly dangerous individuals is nearly non-existent. Maybe that will all be explained away by the films’s advocates as a deliberate act in the twist, but it just looks like it is slapdash storytelling to me. For a guy who has spent 19 years in prison heavily sedated, Mr. Glass has programming skills that are just a little too neat. Finally, be careful here, this may be TMI: the idea that an on-line video will spark a shift in paradigms, rather than ten thousand deconstructions is simply not realistic.

Unlike in his previous work, where the twist endings have been earned [whether you liked them or not], the ending here feels like a cheat. It also includes a downer moment that will deflate fans of super hero movies and stories. I can’t say that the idea that the three films in this series are all an origin story doesn’t make sense. From a comic book perspective it probably does. I just doubt that there will be any subsequent use of that idea, because the audience is not likely to make an investment in something that is shoveled on them in the last ten minutes of a six plus hour journey they have taken. I suppose though that this is where the ultimate controversy will rest. My enthusiasm however  is mostly exhausted.