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Us (2019)

23 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It’s one thing to encounter a sinister-looking family of four (…whom you first noticed standing in a straight line in your driveway in the shadows at night—the first hint that they’re probably not “friendly”). It’s another thing when after they show their lack of benign nature…hey wait a minute, that one looks like your husband. And those two little ones look like your children. And that one looks like you! “It’s us,” your son whimpers. And these “evil usses” (if I may quote “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey” for a moment) are scissors-wielding maniacs who simply want to stalk and kill their counterparts.

That’s the hook for “Us,” writer-director Jordan Peele’s follow-up to his extremely successful hit, “Get Out” (one of my new favorite movies). And where it goes from there…whoa.

Peele has only made two movies (“Us” and “Get Out”), both of which are horror films. And before that, he was best known for sketch comedy (TV’s “Key and Peele”). I think it’s safe to say that Peele has an affinity for storytelling rather than simply create a series of moments he really wants to execute somehow. When people talk about both films, they’re going to remember how well each story worked overall, with not just a short series of moments that caught their attention but a whole bunch of moments and how they helped build and build to something that would keep audiences discussing it for a long time to come. (Meet me in ten years, and we’ll see if that’s true after Peele’s next few films. I sincerely hope so.) That is but one of the reasons Peele’s screenplay for “Get Out” won the Academy Award.

But back to “Us.” The film centers on a family of four—Adelaide (Lupita N’yongo) & Gabe (Winston Duke) and their two kids Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex)—who go on summer vacation at their lake house in Santa Cruz, CA. Overprotective Adelaide wants to relax, but when overexcited Gabe buys a cheap boat and takes the kids on a little day trip to the Santa Cruz beach/boardwalk, it’s not so easy for her. But if she thought that was bad…

Did I mention there was a creepy prologue, set in 1986, involving Adelaide as a young girl who encounters something scary and traumatizing at a boardwalk funhouse with a mirror maze? Do I need to?

Anyway, fast-forward to later that night, as everyone’s about to get ready for bed, when suddenly, THE POWER’S OUT! And as Jason points out to his parents, there’s specifically “a family” in their driveway. And it is a family, it looks like—two adults, two children, all silhouetted in shadow. One of the funnier moments involves Gabe, who behaves as if he’d rather be the star of a lighthearted TV family sitcom than a disturbing horror/thriller, as he tries to challenge the potential intruders off the property. But they don’t take to that very well, and that’s when things go from strange to funny to chilling…and then a little funny again. Funny thing is, even with Gabe’s one-liners to off-set the tension when things go from bad to worse, it still feels like how someone like him would react in such a situation…and that’s before it becomes revealed what these sinister people look like.

We get a wonderfully crafted sequence following the doppelgängers invading the family’s home and revealing themselves to be “the shadows.” They look like the family, even mirror some of their movements, but they’re obviously very different beings. Once they sit them down in the living room, Adelaide’s counterpart, dubbed “Red,” tells them a story (and in a croaky voice, no less) that helps explain that they need to untether themselves from their hosts (hence the pairs of scissors they carry with them). That’s when the chase begins, as it becomes a race to outrun their attackers and survive the night. Jason attempts to outsmart his disfigured double by playing games; Gabe uses his new cheap boat to play against his Frankenstein’s-Monster-like double’s advances; and the two mothers go against each other. And that’s just the beginning…

Oh, and Jason’s opposite (who wears a mask) skitters along the floor on all fours…yikes.

There’s a message in this story about the haves and the have-nots between these comfortably well-off people and their downtrodden doubles, which thus helps go with the underlying commentary about the American Dream. Not particularly subtle, but it helps pave the way for what’s to follow in the next hour or so. And that’s all I’ll say about that here.

The creepiness factor is more than effective; it’s involving. What would we do if we were in that scenario? What would we feel? Thankfully, the characters Peele has given us in his meticulously crafted screenplay are as smart as they come. Yes, there are moments as in a *typical* slasher film when we wish they would “get out,” to coin a phrase, out of a certain situation, but we get why they were in that situation to begin with—many of the things our main characters do are not just to survive but to save each other.

What these doubles truly are, what they represent, whether or not this was an isolated incident, what happens next…I’ll leave for you to discover. As “Us” continues, it grows into a fascinating yet disturbing chiller that says more than we might suspect (which is what the best horror films truly do) and does so with enough twists and turns to keep us invested, enough entertainment value to market it to the mainstream horror audience, an effective style aided by great cinematography (by Mike Gioulakis, who also shot other effective chillers such as “It Follows” and “Split”), and a strong, likable, well-acted cast of characters we can root for. (Oh, and chilling memorable music from Michael Abels…when’s the last time a music composer has been praised for a recent horror film??)

On a personal note, will I watch “Us” as many times as “Get Out,” which I already called one of my new personal faves? “Get Out” certainly had more of the entertainment value to add onto the well-defined characterization, remarkably clever storytelling, and symbolic themes that fit perfectly with clever social commentary (“Get Out” represents just damn good filmmaking, period). “Us” is definitely entertaining, and a good chunk of credit for that goes to the balance of horror and comedy (and of course, Gabe’s behavior helps too), though it does have a touch of the atmospheric bleakness and symbolism of “The Babadook,” “The Witch,” and “Hereditary,” three brutally disturbing horror films that I can only watch once or twice a year because they did their jobs “too” well. (Maybe some day, I’ll write about the “kind” of horror films I “prefer” to watch repeatedly.)

All I know are two things: one is that I will definitely see “Us” again because I want to get everything Jordan Peele threw at me the first time, and the other is I can’t wait to see what Jordan Peele comes up with next.

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Antiquities (2019)

30 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“There’s a feature-length film that could be made with the material in ‘Antiquities.’” –an excerpt from my review of Daniel Campbell’s short film “Antiquities,” April 2013.

Here’s another: “Writer-director Daniel Campbell is obviously so intelligent a filmmaker that he’s able to get laughs by just everyday quirkiness […] it’s funny, and it has something to say about the oddities of everyday life.”

Can I just rewrite that as my closing thoughts for Campbell’s recently released feature-length adaptation?

I loved the short. It was very funny in how eccentric it could make its characters, particularly the awkward lead (played wonderfully by Jason Thompson), which made the elevating genuine sweetness all the more moving and weirdly profound. It was about an odd person gaining enough self-confidence to begin a different direction in life, despite the sometimes-intentional/otherwise-benign efforts of his equally quirky co-workers (including one particular a-hole named Blundale, played by Roger Scott) at an antique mall to hold him back.

So, needless to say, I was more than curious to see what the same writer-director (Daniel Campbell) could do with a feature. For one thing, I was pleasantly surprised that he didn’t bring back the same eccentricities of the supporting characters from his short; for his feature, he introduces new eccentricities, by which maybe I shouldn’t be surprised (yet I am pleasantly surprised). Second thing is, whereas the short was about stepping outside of the image the protagonist was afflicted with, the feature is more about a modern-day everyman finding ways to relate to the eccentric people with whom he had acquainted himself. I had a feeling this would work, and it did. The feature version of “Antiquities,” of course given the same title as the short, is endearingly strange in the most identifiable way.

Having lost his father, a young man named Walt (Andrew J. West) moves back to his small Southern hometown to live with his cheerful aunt and uncle (Melanie Haynes and Jeff Bailey) and gain employment at the antique mall where his dad used to work. He’s a mild mannered kid who sincerely wants to step into his father’s shoes (both figuratively and literally; he wears his father’s old boots to work) and walk around and get acquainted with his old co-workers. In the process, he’ll learn more about his father, about the people he knew, about himself, and how people behave in the names of self-discovery and dealing with pain.

If you like indie “dramedies” with quirky supporting characters, you’ll get a kick out of the cast of eccentric folks here. Entire films could be made about the people who work at this antique mall, such as Blundale (Roger Scott, reprising his role from the original short, more or less), the sumbitch who, when he isn’t making his coworkers’ lives miserable, likes to stage Civil War battles to his own liking through dioramas; or Jimmy Lee (Graham Gordy, who co-wrote the screenplay with Campbell), the oddball whose booth resembles his childhood living room during Christmastime (and nothing in his booth is for sale); or Dolores Jr. (Michaela Watkins), the neurotic with self-image issues; or Dewey Ray (Troy Hogan), the general manager who is married to Blundale’s mother; or Delaney (Michael Gladis), a heavyset man who is more talk than action; or the shrink (Mary Steenburgen in two very funny scenes) whose parrot senses narcissism; or the obligatory Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Ellie (Ashley Greene), who behaves irrationally while also grieving the loss of her cherished brother. (An example of Ellie’s character: on a date with Walt, she sneaks them into a closed amusement park, tricks him onto a ride, and then turns it on while laughing maniacally… I can’t say I recall that happening to me, despite going out with quite a few loony ladies back in the day, but if it did, I probably wouldn’t want to hang out with her again.)

You get my point. But I will continue by saying that while I’m tired of seeing people like this in many recent indie flicks, it was this film that made me realize that I got tired of them because they didn’t feel like real people so much as writer’s constructs to maintain some type of identity. I could see people I knew in these characters; some of the time, I could even see myself in one or two of these characters. And that’s the key difference. You feel that these people are going through their own confusions in life, and while you may be initially put off by some of them, you gain somewhat of an idea as to why they are the way they are. Even Ellie, who I was ready to brush off as too good to be true, became a more interesting character as the film progressed.

Oh, and Jason Thompson is in the feature too, although he doesn’t play the same role as in the short. I feel obligated to report that. (He plays Walt’s cousin.)

So, because the supporting cast is so memorably quirky, you’d think that Andrew J. West, as the Joe Blow protagonist, would seem bland by comparison. On the contrary. I think it’s because he was playing an everyman reacting to the oddness of these people that I kept chuckling at his facial expressions while also wondering what he might be thinking during those moments. (Or maybe it’s just that I would react the same way if I were in his shoes—er, “boots.”)

“Antiquities” is a delightfully observant comedy that taught me not to jump to any conclusions, whatever they might be. And if I may be even more honest here, just writing about those memorable characters made me want to see the film again. The film is available on demand (I rented it from Amazon Prime and I’ll probably purchase it in the near future); I highly recommend you check it out wherever you can, because “Antiquities” is a nice little treasure. It’s funny, and it has something to say about the oddities of everyday life.

(Wait, that sounded familiar…)