Saturday, March 23, 2019

This is “Us:” Jordan Peele’s Bonkers New Nightmare is an Instant Horror Classic

One this is most definitely true of Jordan Peele’s “Us:” it demands that you see it a second time. And I’m ok with that because it’s completely outstanding; it’s creepy, scary, intense, funny, and, best of all, flat-out insane. The preview for “Us” tells us all we need to know to get us to want to see this bizarre new follow up to his Oscar-winning hit “Get Out:” a family on vacation in their summer home begin to be terrorized by another family who look exactly like them. Sold. And yet there is so much more to “Us” as a film that I almost feel like I underpaid for the fantastic experience of it all. The film is a smart and funny horror flick that has a much bigger scope, fun twists and turns, perfect performances, and has a lot to say about society once you begin to discuss the film afterwards. In fact, I just can’t stop thinking about it. Jordan Peele is a genius.

The film is a reunion of sorts for “Black Panther” supporting actors Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke who play the Tylers, a middle class couple who set out to their vacation lake house with their two kids. We learn through flashbacks that Adaelaide (Nyong’o), as a child, had a traumatic experience in a carnival fun house. She seems to generally gotten over it though she’s a bit overprotective of her daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and especially her younger son Jason (Evan Alex). Her husband Gabe (Duke) is your typical goofy, funny dad who likes to tease and slightly embarrass his kids. Seems like a normal family to me. But all is not what it appears to be on this supposed idyllic summer vacation. There’s definitely something wrong. And later that night a family of four shows up in the driveway – all wearing red jumpsuits and clutching menacing golden scissors – who seem to want one thing: to get in their house. Oh and they literally look just like them (they’re even played by the same actors).

It would criminal to say much more as the fun of it all is determined by how little you actually know going into the film. Peele has crafted a really fun and scary film that’s part home invasion thriller and part – well he mixes lots of genres and inspirations. Essentially a full length bonkers “Twilight Zone” episode, “Get Out” was a modern take on “The Stepford Wives” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” but “Us” doesn’t feel quite as definitive. I felt the influences of lots of films. Everything from “Funny Games” to “Jaws” to “The Birds” and “The People Under the Stairs.” Throw in a bit of zombie movie, David Lynch, Alfred Hitchcock, and - once again - a “Twilight Zone” and you get somewhat of what to expect in “Us.” Peele always has a message – his choices in his script and direction are never just coincidence. It was obvious what he had to say in “Get Out.” But with “Us” it’s slightly more challenging and vague and open to interpretation (and, for the record, arguably much scarier). In fact “Us” isn’t just the simple home invasion film that the trailer sets up – this movie will facilitate a post-viewing discussion that could take weeks to unravel. I can’t remember a mainstream film doing that since the controversial “mother!” but that film was far less digestible.

Peele is a master filmmaker, even at only two feature films into his career. His movie is so well crafted you’d think it was a veteran filmmaker 30 years into his career. Technical merits are solid. The film’s visuals are beautiful and telling – an overheard shot of the family as they make their way across the sandy beach with the sunlight casting large black shadows is one of the most seemingly innocuous but menacing shots of foreshadowing in quite some time. The music score from composer Michael Abels is just as menacing and simply outstanding. The film’s third act is simply bonkers and a complete showcase for the wonderful and Oscar-worthy Nyong’o who kills it in two terrific performances. Also great in a supporting role is Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss as the Tyler’s friend also on vacation with her family

Do me a favor? Go see the film, laugh and scream, and then talk about with those you saw it with. Talk to the woman sitting in front of you who seems confused. Facilitate discussion. I don’t think there’s exactly a wrong or right way to interpret Peele’s film. He has a lot to say about class, race, and American society in general. The movie’s trailer insists we are our own worst enemy and I think that’s a great jumping off point. God I can’t wait to see this again.  GRADE: A

Friday, March 08, 2019

The Marvelous Ms. Danvers: “Captain Marvel” is a Solid and Overdue Addition to the MCU

There’s been plenty of great female characters in the twenty Marvel films that have preceded “Captain Marvel.” But none of them have headlined their own film. There’s no reason twenty films in, there has not been a Marvel film centered around a female protagonist. Why is this such a big deal? Well it wouldn’t be if they had made a female centered superhero film years ago. Audiences have waited a long time for Captain Marvel to show up and she’s in glorious form. “Captain Marvel” is definitely one of the most flat-out fun films in the MCU; sure it may not carry the emotional weight of the years preceding “Infinity War” but it stands fine on its own two feet, featuring fantastic visuals, an interesting story, a fun nostalgia streak, and likable characters. This is definitely solid mid-tier Marvel. And it even features one of cinema’s cutest cats.

“Captain Marvel” is sort of “Guardians of the Galaxy” lite. The film is set in the same general universe as that film and even has some crossover characters and races of people. We’re introduced to Brie Larson’s character as Vers who is a Kree and suffers from weird visions that feature Annette Bening. Who wouldn’t want to have weird visions of Annette Bening?? After a mission involving infiltrating the evil shape-shifting Krulls goes awry Vers crash lands on Earth. In Los Angeles. In a Blockbuster. Did I mention the film takes place in 1995? There she meets young versions of SHIELD agents Samuel L. Jackon’s Nicky Fury and Clark Gregg’s Phil Coulson. There, she must help fight off some invading Skrulls and figure out what’s the deal with her bizarre memories and the fact that she may in fact be a former US Air Force pilot named Carol Danvers.

The film could have easily gone down the “fish out of water” plot hole but that was done in “Thor” and even DC’s “Wonder Woman.” The film instead centers around a mystery involving our fantastic lead with welcomed bits of comedy. Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck – who come from the indie world of films like “Half Nelson” – imbue the film with a wonderful intimacy and also 90s nostalgia much in the way “Guardians” was an ode to the 80s. Conceiving the film as a prequel to the other Marvel films also gives the filmmakers the freedom to do their own thing while also eventually connecting the film to the rest of the MCU, much in the same way “Captain America: The First Avenger” was essentially all a setup for “The Avengers.”

Technical merits are top-notch. The visual effects are fantastic. The music score from composer Pinar Toprak is solid if not particularly memorable like most of the Marvel films (she’s also the first female composer in the MCU). Nothing has really come close to the “Ant-Man” theme and Black Panther’s Oscar-winning music. All of the performances are great. Brie is likable in the title role and she really kicks ass even if her performance is a tad understated. Her mysterious story works pretty well and thankfully doesn’t need to include a love interest. Jude Law is good as Vers’ commander/mentor, even if he does too much mansplaning. And how fun is it to see someone like Bening in this? At this point it feels like if you haven’t done a Marvel film are you really even an actor? I previously mentioned the film introduces a cute kitty and that darned cat pretty much steals the movie.

There’s not much to complain about in “Captain Marvel.” Maybe it a take a little time to really get going but the film is just as exciting, the action is just as well-done (including a great sequence on an elevated train), and the characters as just as well drawn as any other solid Marvel film. Is it the best? Of course not. The film isn’t nearly as unique at some of the other entries but Marvel’s overdue take on a feminist storyline is quite good and I can’t wait to see what Brie has up her sleeve in the next Avengers film.  GRADE: B+

Sunday, March 03, 2019

Something to Stalk About: “Greta” is a Fun, If Standard, Campy Stalker Thriller

Call me disheartened but I refuse to believe anyone in New York City would take the time to travel to a complete stranger’s home to return a lost purse. At least not alone. And yet that’s exactly the premise of “Greta,” a movie in which no one really acts like a real human being. Thankfully “Greta” devolves into a campy stalker thriller so that’s ok in my book. It stars recent Oscar nominee Isabelle Huppert doing her crazy worst as a woman who baits naive people with “lost” purses around the city hoping to form a friendship and then going all “Misery” on them. “Greta” reminds me of the early 90s stalker dramas; your “Single White Females” your “Hand That Rock the Cradles” and I’m all for it. It does very little to be all that unique or different, but it’s well-paced, entertaining, and features a wildly fun to watch Huppert who chews up and spits out the scenery around her, sometimes even flipping tables over in process.

Enter Chloe Grace Moretz’ Frances McCullen who takes Greta’s bait hook line and sinker. Frances is a nice girl from Boston. She just moved to Manhattan where she’s living with her friend Erica (Maika Monroe) whose father bought her an apartment for graduation. At least they try to explain why two young twenty-somethings have a killer pad. Frances finds a purse on the subway, tries to drop it off at the lost and found – which has nobody working there – and takes the purse home. She decides to be a good Samaritan and return the bag to its owner. When she arrives to a cute little offset apartment building, she finds an even cuter older French woman named Greta (Huppert) who is thrilled to see her purse and offers Frances some coffee. Don’t go in there!!

The two women are obviously lonely people and quickly find a connection. In real life, these people would never see each other again. But we’re watching a crazy stalker thriller so naturally the two women exchange phone numbers and continue to meet up and hang out. Erica who seemingly spends all her time doing yoga in her huge apartment things Frances is insane for hanging out with a woman she doesn’t even know. And then one night when at Greta’s place for dinner, Frances fines a cupboard full of the same purse she found and returned to Greta. It freaks her out naturally and she promptly leaves without giving Greta much of an explanation. And then soon Greta wonders why Frances refuses to answer her texts or calls. And then it gets crazier from there.

The film is surprisingly directed by Neil Jordan who gave us such cinematic classics as “The Crying Game” (a film I can’t say I’m a fan of) and “Interview With the Vampire” (which is campy enough itself). His last real impact in mainstream film was the Jodie Foster starring the NYC-set “The Brave One” which followed its own worn out vigilante storyline. Jordan also co-wrote the film (he shares credit with Ray Wright who wrote the story) and it he has certainly crafted a beautiful movie (it was shot by Seamus McGarvey) but besides some tense moments it doesn’t quite offer anything new or all that surprising. I find myself wondering what someone like Jordan saw in this well-worn material. I think one of the biggest flaws from my point of view is Moretz who isn’t given that much to do with this character and comes off a tad bland. She’s lonely because she’s recently lost her mother but she’s mostly reactive to all the crazy stuff that Greta is doing to her. Stalking her at work, following her friends around, and being a general nut bag. This is Isabelle Huppert’s show and she’s insanely good. Literally. The film’s final act isn’t very original but it’s surprisingly satisfying.

In the end, what’s the point of all this? It’s just a somewhat over-the-top thriller about a crazy woman. But it’s entire existence is predicated on the fact that Frances would even return a purse she found on the subway. I believe that there are good people in the world. But turn you gotta turn that stuff into the police. Otherwise you might end up starring in a crazy bitch thriller.  GRADE: B