REVIEW: “Us”

USposter

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.

US1

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?

US 3

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.

US2

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

 

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “Non-Stop”

NON POSTER

Almost overnight Liam Neeson became today’s Stallone or Schwarzenegger. Whether he is tracking Albanian human traffickers across Europe or fighting Alaskan grey wolves with shards of glass attached to his fists, the 61 year old Neeson has not only embraced his action stardom but he’s really good at it. But this really shouldn’t surprise anyone. A brief scan of Neeson’s filmography shows that he is a versatile actor who has never been a stranger to action roles.

He shows it again by giving us another March action thriller called “Non-Stop”. The film is directed by Jaume Collet-Serra who also worked with Neeson on the 2011 film “Unknown”. This time around he is 30,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean in a passenger plane and facing one Neeson-sized threat. “Non-Stop” is a huge step up from the star’s last action outing “Taken 2”. It’s a fun throwback picture that uses many of the same plot devices which service the story well despite the perfunctory impression they leave.

NON2

Neeson plays Bill Marks, a United States Federal Air Marshall who boards a non-stop flight from New York to London. We learn several things about him early on. He is an alcoholic who clearly has some emotional baggage. He also has a fear of flying (particularly takeoffs) which is a liability considering his occupation. The film also uses the familiar method of giving us brief glimpses of the major players in the film as they wait to board the aircraft – passengers, pilots, flight attendants. It’s cleverly executed here and it had me cautiously and suspiciously examining every face I was shown.

Once the plane is over the Atlantic Bill gets a phone text on his secure federal line threatening to kill someone onboard every 20 minutes unless $150 million is transferred to a bank account. At first he tries to decipher whether or not it’s a hoax, but he quickly finds out that the threat is real. With one person dead, 20 minutes until another person dies, and no way to quickly land while over the ocean, Bill has try and get control over the perilous and deadly situation.

As you can tell this is obviously pretty absurd stuff, but that doesn’t stop it from being a highly entertaining ride. Neeson gives his usual stout and sturdy performance but here he is also quite vulnerable. We do get those patented scenes where he breaks noses and snaps necks, but he also brings out the panic, perplexity, and brokenness which the story includes as part of the character. Julianne Moore plays a passenger he meets on the plane as does Corey Stoll in an entirely different role than his Hemingway from “Midnight in Paris”. Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery and recent Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o play flight attendants although Nyong’o is relegated to a very small part.

NON1

“Non-Stop” throws a few jabs at a number of subjects including the news media’s over anxiousness to tell a story despite its inaccuracy and various post-911 attitudes about flying and people in general. Some work better than others. The movie does take a few preposterous turns and the final revelation, while satisfying for me, was a bit goofy and requires the audience to refrain from asking some very obvious questions. On the flipside it was always casting doubt on my suspicions and I never figured out what was going on until the final reveal.

Will “Non-Stop” make anyone’s Best of 2014 list? I highly doubt it. But it is an example of a very fun and entertaining action thriller that allows the audience to just sit back and play along. It helps to have such a strong anchor as Neeson. He is comfortable with these roles and when given good material he can provide us with a really good escape. While “Non-Stop” has some obvious flaws it is an easy movie to recommend and it’s one I wouldn’t mind seeing again. Now lets see what Neeson has in store for us next.

VERDICT – 3 STARS