REVIEW: “Us”

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After the enormous success of “Get Out” writer-director Jordan Peele found himself the object of near universal acclaim. Since the earliest screenings of his sophomore effort “Us” the acclamation has only intensified. He has already been heralded as “the new Hitchcock” and “the next Spielberg”. And one blurb has christened his newest movie “The Best Horror Film of All Time”. That’s an absurd level of praise and completely unfair to a filmmaker with only two movies under his belt.

“Get Out” was a movie full of big ideas but hardly what you would call groundbreaking execution. The sheer audacity of its story seemed to be enough for most people to overlook its gaping plot holes and third act sloppiness. “Us”, same genre but a much different movie, suffers from none of those same problems. In fact, it turns out to be a fascinating mélange of smart, well-measured comedy and straight-forward psychological horror but with a host of extra flavors tossed in. Most importantly, it’s a wonderfully original bit of horror which is something the genre is always in need of.

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Peele begins his chilling and twisted tale with a really well crafted prologue set in 1986. On the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk a young girl named Adelaide wanders off from her parents and into a rinky-dink funhouse. She’s found there shortly after but not before a traumatizing encounter leaves her shaken to the core.

Jump ahead to the present day. A grown-up Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) arrives at her family’s lakeside vacation home with her garrulous and daffy husband Gabe (Winston Duke), their early-stage teen rebel daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and their precocious young son Jason (Evan Alex). Adelaide hasn’t shared her childhood trauma with Gabe who is understandably confused when she pushes back on his plans for an afternoon at Santa Cruz Beach.

Adelaide gives in and they head to the beach to hang out with fellow upper middle-classers Josh and Kitty Tyler (played by Tim Heidecker and Elizabeth Moss) and their two snooty daughters. But when Jason wanders off it’s deja vu for Adelaide. She finds her son but is clearly rattled and the family outing is cut short. Back at the lakehouse Adelaide and Gabe are hashing it out when Jason notices a creepy family lurking in the driveway. If you’ve seen the trailers you know these aren’t just pesky neighbors. They’re doppelgängers – ghoulish copies of Adelaide and her family. But what do they want and where are they from?

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I’d be doing a major disservice if I went any further because the less you know the better the experience. Let’s just say the terror kicks in and “Us” takes the early form of a home invasion flick. But as it ventures further down Peele’s rabbit hole it slyly and in some instances gruesomely branches into several frightening new directions.

This is also where Peele’s interest in duality comes fully into focus. It’s seen not only within the narrative and the characters but also the cast members who play both the family of four and their macabre copies. All of them are good but it’s Nyong’o who shines brightest (Oscar I hope you’re watching?). When she steps into the skin of Red, her sinister other self, her performance takes on an otherworldly aura. From her eerie off-kilter mannerisms to her gurgling voice laced with a menacing wheeze. It’s fabulously unsettling.

You could argue that Peele has too much on his mind and that he has a hard time corralling his plethora of ideas and themes. Strangely I actually see its broader ambition as a strength. “Get Out” had a much tighter focus but its delivery was messier. With “Us” the aim may be a little messy but Peele brings it together with sharp instincts and a better grasp of scene-to-scene storytelling and tension-building. Best of all he maintains a level of uncertainty and ambiguity which allows for a variety of interpretations depending on the set of eyes you’re looking through. And oh how well he uses Michael Abels’ brilliantly chilling score.

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While “Us” is not specifically about race Peele has intimated his desire for audiences to see a black family as simply that – a black family and nothing more. But even that is a sly way of challenging his viewers. Much of “Us” works that way – dealing with themes in subtle yet effective ways. The lone exception being a specific scene with a certain obscenity-jacked N.W.A. song blaring in the background. Funny at first, bludgeoning by the end. Most will love it but it’s the one instance where Peele gets a little sidetracked and the scene takes a hit because of it.

While many will point to “Get Out” as Jordan Peele’s seminal work, for me “Us” is the movie that puts him among those significant filmmakers to keep an eye on. What he does in “Us” isn’t stumbled upon. It comes from a shrewd understanding of his craft. He’ll have you scouring every scene for clues and digging deep for philosophical meanings. He’ll have you tense and on the edge of your seat wondering what comes next. And as he’s exploring this idea that “we all have a dark side”, he brings an entirely new meaning to the phrase ‘afraid of your own shadow’.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

 

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REVIEW: “Listen Up Philip”

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It’s a good thing that you aren’t required to like or root for a main character in order to enjoy a movie. If that were the case the film “Listen Up Philip” wouldn’t have a fan in the world. This is the third movie from 30-year old independent filmmaker Alex Ross Perry and it can be a challenge. It is relentlessly unpleasant and it may feature the most detestable lead character you’ll see this year. Yet at the same time the dialogue is razor sharp, it is at times darkly funny, and it features a wickedly good lead performance from Jason Schwartzman.

The opening scene reveals to us the type of man we will be spending our time with. Philip (Schwartzman) sits in a restaurant impatiently waiting for his ex-girlfriend. She is 20 minutes late and he has already rehearsed how he’s going to belittle and confront her, not just for being late, but for never supporting him during their time together in ways he finds satisfactory. Philip is a writer who has just completed his second novel. His taste of success has fed his insatiable narcissism and he can’t wait to rub it in his ex’s face.

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Philip’s haughty self-absorption isn’t just reserved for his ex-girlfriend. We see it with a stranger at a bar, with his publisher, and we mostly see it with his current girlfriend Ashley who is played wonderfully by Elizabeth Moss. Ashley is one of our few refuges. She is a likable character who loves Philip and seems to have found a way to navigate his crazy range of emotions. But relationships can only sustain so much when a toxic character like Philip is factored in.

Now throw in an accomplished but aged writer Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce). He is Philip’s literary idol and a man desperate for new inspiration. Having appreciated Philip’s first two books, Ike contacts him with an invitation to stay at his country cottage and write. Philip jumps at the chance, leaving Ashley behind and fully expecting her to wait for him. We quickly learn that Ike isn’t the blueprint Philip follows in writing only. Ike’s also shares the same miserable self-centered lifestyle. The question becomes will Philip learn from Ike’s pathetic example or emulate it?

“Listen Up Philip” can be seen as many things. For one it’s a gut punch to many of the creative elites. It shows the striking differences between the happiness they bring through their creativity and the self-inflicted misery many of them live in. The film shows the fantasy world many elites live in built upon self-importance and the idea of being better than anyone else. These acidic personalities also bleed over into relationships. We see it with Philip and Ashley and later when he meets a French professor played by Joséphine de La Baume. For Ike it’s evident by his strained relationship with his daughter Melanie (Krysten Ritter).

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As I mentioned, the real challenge is in staying with these characters. I can easily see some people struggling with the film as they wait and search for at least an ounce of humanity in Philip. It seems as if Perry anticipates this problem. At one point in the film Philip vanishes for nearly 20 minutes and we follow Ashley and her struggles with Philip being gone. I’m still struggling with how I feel about the narrative shift. I like the Ashley character and there are some good moments in our time with her, but I’m not sure the divergence fully works. On the opposite end, by the films final act I did find myself worn down. I had grown tired of Philip despite the compelling nature of the character.

A part of me is thankful that people like Philip and Ike do crave some degree of solitude. This film pulls no punches in conveying these corrosive personalities, but it does so with a nice smattering of humor and with some very committed performances especially from Schwartzman who is perfectly cast. But in the end I felt exhausted and I was ready to close the book on these people. Was that the film’s desired effect? I’m not certain.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS