Monthly Archives: March 2019

This is ‘Us’

Jordan Peele’s scare-tastic follow-up to ‘Get Out’ delivers a terrifying twist and feels like an instant horror classic

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Us
Starring Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss & Tim Heidecker
Directed by Jordan Peele

R

A family’s beach vacation takes a terrifying twist in the new movie from writer-director Jordan Peele, who reminds us of the soul-shaking scares that can be waiting to pounce from places we’re least expecting them—or places we never want to look.

Like, when we see ourselves.

Us, Peele’s follow-up to his excellent Oscar-winning Get Out (2017), begins in the 1980s as a guileless young girl, Adelaide (Madison Curry), wanders off a boardwalk amusement park and has a traumatic experience inside a funky beachside carnival funhouse, a hall of mirrors—where she sees another little girl who looks exactly like her.

It’s unnerving and very creepy.

Now, some three decades later, Adelaide is all grown up (and played by Lupita Nyong’o), returning to the same California seaside town, Santa Cruz, for a getaway with her husband, Gabe (Winston Duke) and their kids, teenage daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and son Jason (Evan Alex). She’s still haunted by what happened on the beach, and so are we.

The family tries to enjoy the day with their friends (Elisabeth Moss of The Handmaid’s Tale and Tim Heidecker, and their two too-cool teenage daughters, played by twin sisters Noelle and Cali Sheldon). But a weird vibe is building, like the odd design on a Frisbee that gets tossed onto their blanket—and what’s with that eerie old guy in the filthy trench coat, who’s hanging around? Is that blood dripping off his fingertips?

And why did Jason draw a picture of him when he got home?

Film Title: UsThen things really shift into creepy overdrive that evening. “There’s a family in our driveway,” says Jason. That one line sends shivers down the spine, because the “family” outside looks exactly like the family inside. They easily break into the house. They overpower Adelaide, Gabe and the kids. Things get violent and threatening.

The outside “family” moans like animals or talks in rasps and croaks. They move or flit about in bizarre, herky-jerky motions, or like robots. And they’re carrying big, sharp scissors—for something they call “the untethering.”

Where have they come from? Who are they?

“It’s…us,” says Jason.

Us is a horror show, for sure, with boldness, bite, brilliance, blood, substance and style. In Get Out, Peele melded gotchas with scathing social commentary, and he’s working on an even broader canvas here. This is a masterful, scarifying puzzle of a film that combines terror, humor, violence, pop culture, philosophy, religion and roasting riffs on consumerism, class, yuppie excess and American comfort zones. It’s a lot to unpack, and you’ve got to stick with it.

Film Title: UsYou may want to look up the movie’s repeated references (you’ll see it visualized at least twice) to the Old Testament verse Jeremiah 11:11. (It’s heavy.) If you’re old enough to remember the 1986 charity campaign Hands Across America, well, that will come in hella-handy. Did you know that there are hundreds of miles of unused tunnels, deserted mine shafts and abandoned subway systems underneath the surface of the United States? How can bunnies be creepy and cuddly at the same time?

This is a movie you’ll probably be discussing long after you see it; it’s got plenty of things to dissect—especially about the duality of human nature, our ids and egos and just where, and how, any of us might “find ourselves” if we went into a hall of mirrors—or dug deep enough into our pasts.

Though all of the actors pull “double” duty, also playing their dark-side doppelgangers, Nyong’o is a true revelation, raging with explosive survival instincts that can turn equally monstrous in either of her characters.

Peele, who got his start in comedy with the Emmy Award-winning duo Key & Peele, has now become a modern horror maestro. He nods to Kubrick, Spielberg and De Palma, but he’s clearly got his own footing and panache. On April 1, he’ll take over the vaunted Twilight Zone franchise for its reboot on the streaming service CBS All Access. If this movie’s any indication of where he might take it, I’m all aboard.

Some scary movies just scare you. This one rattles you good. Who are we? What do we see when we look in the mirror? Are we the “us” we think we are? Do the things we do to feel good—and prosperous, and comfortable—make someone else feel miserable, poor…and very angry? Are heaven and hell two identical twins that ended up on opposites sides of the same cosmic coin?

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It’s a deep, dark dive into a movie-carnival funhouse of apocalyptic nightmares, where grim shadows lurk and dreams go to starve and fester—and an iconic, sunny summer song by the Beach Boys will forever sound more ominous because of how it’s used in one particular scene.

This is Us, a modern horror movie that has the feel of an instant classic, one that has staying power to shock and awe years or even decades from now, a horror film that suggests that the most monstrous monsters of all might be the monstrosities that are the easiest to overlook, bury or forget—until we’re confronted with them face to face. And those faces turn out to be our own.

In theaters March 22, 2019

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Pulling Rank

Brie Larson Radiates Grrrrl Power in Marvel’s First Fem-Solo Superhero Saga

nullCaptain Marvel
Starring Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Jude Law, Annette Bening and Ben Mendelsohn
Directed by Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck
PG-13

Move over, Thor. Step aside, Spidey. At ease, Iron Man. There’s a new officer pulling some serious rank in the comic book corps.

But don’t call her Captain Marvel—not just yet.

In the first female-fronted superhero saga from the Marvel big-screen spandex factory, Brie Larson stars as Carol Danvers, a former U.S. Air Force fighter pilot—and also a Kree space-alien soldier, known as Vers, from the distant planet Hala.

But Danvers has a hard time understanding how to reconcile these two separate—but very connected—parts of her life. Her memory’s been scrambled, in a big, primal explosion that also gave her cosmic superpowers, and she spends most of the movie trying to put the pieces together.

She doesn’t know who she really is. She doesn’t know who she really was. And she doesn’t know that her past and present will eventually merge and she’ll become the super-charged superhero known as Captain Marvel, who can zoom through the skies, glow with fire and shoot explosive photon beams from her hands.

nullAnd she certainly doesn’t know that she’ll become a pivotal figure—perhaps even a cornerstone—for the entire Marvel franchise.

Captain Marvel, the 21st Marvel movie, is mostly set in the 1990s, before the events depicted in most other flicks in the Marvel Comic Universe, which connects almost all the Marvel titles and characters. Much of the fun is seeing how it lays the groundwork for things that happened in previously released films, reintroduces familiar characters and whets the appetite for more movies to come (like Avengers: Endgame, opening April 26).

Co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck are mostly known for their indie films Half Nelson, Mississippi Grind and It’s Kind of a Funny Story. This is a pretty big deal, to get the keys to kingdom for a huge franchise movie—a Marvel epic with the Disney brand. And even though DC Comics beat Marvel to the punch getting Wonder Woman to the big screen (as the first female superhero movie, ever), there’s still a lot riding on Captain Marvel. Even before the movie was released, internet trolls weren’t happy about Brie Larson’s casting (since, in the comics, Captain Marvel was originally a man), or her campaign for more “inclusion” in superhero epics. (And speaking of inclusion, Boden becomes the first woman to ever direct a Marvel movie.)

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Here come the Skrulls!

But Captain Marvel soars as an origin story with heart, cheeky humor, wit and warmth, zingy dialogue, punchy action, colorful characters and a hero—heroine—who radiates righteous grrrl power as Danvers breaks the glass ceiling on two worlds where men can’t seem to stop telling her what she can’t do, what she’s not qualified to do, what she’s not meant to do. “You do know why they call it a cockpit, don’t you?” one of her male Air Force co-pilots taunts her. “Don’t let your emotions overrule your judgement,” says Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), her Kree mentor, training her as part of his elite, SWAT-type team of Starforce warriors who fight the shape-shifting, green-skinned Skrulls, led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn).

The movie pulsates with a rockin’ soundtrack of ’80s and ’90s tunes from female-fronted bands—“Only Happy When It Rains” by Garbage, Heart’s “Crazy on You,” “Celebrity Skin” by Hole, “Just a Girl” by No Doubt. When she crash-lands through the rooftop of a Blockbuster video store in 1995, Vers ponders the rows of strange artifacts, briefly picking up a VHS copy of The Right Stuff, the 1983 Oscar-winner about the Mercury astronauts and America’s space race. It’s a nod to her own test-pilot roots—and the space gauntlet she’ll soon be running herself.

And it’s full of fun ’90s pop-cultural artifacts. A Nerf Gun factors into a smashing space-alien smackdown. A Space Infinity Stone, an all-powerful Tesseract, is transported inside a Fonzie lunchbox—Heeeeey! Remember pay phones, dial-up internet, Troll dolls and settling in to watch The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air?

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Samuel L. Jackson

On Earth, Vers runs into Special Agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the future director of the Avengers superhero organization S.H.I.E.L.D, and his assistant, Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg). Both Jackson and Gregg were digitally “de-aged” to look some 25 younger, and it’s pretty amazing, especially for Jackson, who appears extensively—without Fury’s signature eyepatch, which we know will come later. Jackson, a Marvel fan favorite, is the special sauce that spices up anything he’s in, and he enlivens Captain Marvel considerably with some of the movie’s best quips and one-liners.

Gemma Chan (from Crazy Rich Asians) is a Starforce warrior. Annette Bening plays the elusive Dr. Wendy Lawson, who holds a critical key to Danvers’ fuzzy-memory back story. Lashana Lynch adds a layer of warmth as Danvers’ former Air Force bestie, Maria Rambeau, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see her precocious daughter, Monica (Akira Akbar), whom Danvers nicknames Lt. Trouble, crop up in another Marvel movie down the road. There’s a pause for a sweet posthumous cameo from the late Stan Lee.

The movie brings up issues about refugees, imperialistic domination, war and the age-old question of who, or what, you can trust. The granny on the train, who might be an evil alien in disguise? The enemy alien, who might be an ally? The memory, that might not even be real? A “Supreme Intelligence” who might not be so supreme, or so intelligent, after all?

An orange tabby cat named Goose (dig the Top Gun reference) is a fur-ball of feisty surprises, and surely earns a place in filmdom’s feline Hall of Fame.

nullBut Captain Marvel is Brie Larson’s movie, certainly—even if her character is never actually called Captain Marvel. The closest we get is “Mar-vell,” one of the earlier incarnations from the comics; you’ll have to bore down into Marvel lore to find out just how deep Captain Marvel goes, back to 1967, how the mantle of character passed over gender lines in the 1970s and finally became fully female around 2012.

“It’s two words,” she tells Fury. “Mar-Vell.”

Marvel sounds a lot better,” Fury says. “Like the Marvelettes.” He playfully sings a bit of the group’s big 1960s hit, “Please Mister Postman.”

Danvers grins, but she’s not having any of that—not yet. She’s got other music to make, another superhero song to sing, more galactic mail to deliver, other missions to fly. Captain Marvel will assuredly be back. And we’ll all get used to that name. Hang on, and stay tuned!

In Theaters March 8, 2019

Grim Fairy Tale

Pulpy little crazy-train thriller asks: Who’s afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf?

GRETA
Greta
Starring Chloë Grace Moretz & Isabelle Huppert
Directed by Neil Jordan
Rated R

Folklorists tell us that fairy tales once had a practical component at a time when the world was a much darker, more dangerous place. They were cautionary yarns that carried warnings for children to steer clear of wild animals, keep out of the forest and avoid strangers—who might bamboozle them, harm them, steal them or even kill them.

The world is still a dangerous place, as we know.

In Greta, a young woman named Frances (Chloë Grace Moretz) reminds us all again when she innocently returns a left-behind purse she finds on a New York City subway to its rightful owner, a lonely older widower named Greta (French actress Isabelle Huppert) who lives alone in a big, old back-alley apartment, loves classical music—and desperately wants a new friend.

How desperately?

Well, let’s just say it doesn’t take long before things start to become desperate, indeed. Frances, a recent transplant to the Big Apple, tries to be friendly at first. She visits Greta again, helps her cook, assists her in picking out a new shelter dog.  

GRETA

Maika Monroe and Chloë Grace Moretz

Frances’ spunky flatmate, Erica (Maika Monroe), can’t believe just how quickly Frances—who’s recently lost her own mother—has let herself become entangled with Greta. “You’ve like, totally adopted this woman—and you hardly know her!” Erica says. “She’s not your mother.”  

And soon enough, it becomes clear that Greta has a screw—or two—loose. She calls, she texts—and she stalks. She shows up where Frances works, at an upscale restaurant, making a scene. She sends Frances flowers, keeps popping up in the hallway of her apartment building, and follows her roommate. Cops tell Frances they can’t really do anything. “Ignore her,” one policeman tells Frances. “She’s just looking for attention.”

Of course, attention isn’t what Greta’s looking for, as we—and Frances—find out.

Greta feels, in many ways, like a modern-day fairy tale. Greta’s home—dark, forbidding, off the “beaten path” of a busy street—is like the lair at end of a windswept woodland trail. I halfway expected to see Hansel and Gretel, or the Three Little Pigs, peeping around the potted plants beside the front door.

Greta is the Big Bad Wolf, the Evil Stepmother and the Wicked Witch, all rolled into one. And when she sits at her ancient upright piano and plays Franz Liszt, or puts Chopin on the turntable, those Euro maestros sound more creepy than classical—especially when they mask the muffled thumps and thuds coming from the wall behind the piano.

And Frances is a contemporary Red Riding Hood, down to her hood-ie (although it’s gray), and her ride is a bicycle as she ventures to Greta’s house. Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? Frances is, and her fear turns out to be completely justified. Greta is a monster.

Irish director Neil Jordan won an Oscar for writing the screenplay for the gender-bending The Crying Game back in 1992. Greta’s no award winner, I’m afraid, but it is a tight, pulpy, nasty little crazy-train psychological thriller that takes a sharp turn into something even nastier in the home stretch. You won’t be shocked, or really even surprised, when this fairy tale goes “grim.”

But for all its campy craft, there’s a somewhat serious thread running throughout about grief, loss and what drives people to madness. The Evil Queen who bedeviled Snow White may have had some serious psychological or environmental issues that turned her into a cold, cruel, vain, jealous sorceress with a magic mirror and a poisoned apple—but we never hear about them.

GRETAAt only 22, Moretz already has more than 60 movie and TV roles on her resume, including last year’s horror film Suspiria, the 2013 remake of Carrie and the 2016 comedy Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising. Here she’s certainly believable as a smart, sensible “good girl” trying to do the right thing, who quickly gets sucked into a situation that turns icky, then ugly, then downright dangerous and dire.

Monroe, who plays Frances’ apartment mate and old college roomie, best known for the breakout 2014 horror flick It Follows, is the audience surrogate for the film—the voice of reason, question and doubt. Believe me, you’d want her as your best friend, too.

And Huppert, the international screen, TV and stage veteran who was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar for Elle in 2016, camps it up as Greta, nimbly nibbling around the edges of craziness before diving in fully and chewing up the scenery. She dances, she screams, she purrs, she wipes up a puddle of blood, she pulls out a hypodermic syringe, she slams the lid—and locks the hasp—on a big, wooden, coffin-like box filled with toys, stuffed animals and…

So—who’s afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf?

In theaters March 1, 2019