"Everything is as it should be."

                                                                                  - Benjamin Purcell Morris

 

 

© all material on this website is written by Michael McCaffrey, is copyrighted, and may not be republished without consent

Us: A Review

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****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****

My Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Popcorn Rating: 2.25 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT. A visually and narratively muddled disappointment of a movie that tries to be everything and ends up being nothing.

Us, written and directed by Jordan Peele, is a horror film that tells the story of the Wilson family who are hunted by their shadow dopplegangers while on vacation in Santa Cruz. The film stars Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex.

Jordan Peele’s last film, 2017’s Get Out, was a horror/comedy that was also a social commentary on race and white liberal guilt that made a remarkable 255 million dollars off of a 4.5 million dollar budget. The film was a cultural phenomenon and critical darling that besides making gobs of money also garnered Best Picture and Best Director Oscar nominations and actually won the award for Best Original Screenplay.

The context in which Get Out became a “thing” is important to remember though, as the #OscarsSoWhite hysteria was at a fever pitch at the time and Hollywood and the media were desperate for any artist, actor or director of color to succeed. Jordan Peele was at the right place at the right time with the right type of movie to become a symbol for all of those hungry for a cinematic savior of color.

When I saw Get Out my response was, “what is all the fuss about?” I was entirely underwhelmed by the film and thought it was at best a pedestrian work with a clever premise and political perspective with which I actually agreed. I also thought that critics were, ironically considering the film’s spot-on theme of White liberal guilt, over-hyping the film and Peele’s filmmaking skill due to a “woke” agenda where all things related to diversity are wonderful. It seemed obvious to me that the incessant and exuberant critical love for Jordan Peele and Get Out was a function of grading on a diversity curve as opposed to on merit, which as a cinephile I find grating and frankly unethical.

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Which brings us to…well..Us… Jordan Peele’s follow up to Get Out. It might come as a surprise to some that despite my misgivings about Get Out, I was actually really excited to see Us. The reason for my anticipation was that the trailer is absolutely fantastic. The trailer makes the film look super creepy, scary and bursting with thematic and symbolic potential and possibilities. Add in the fact that it dealt with dopplegangers, which I equated to the Jungian concept of the shadow (which intrigues me as an amateur Jungian), and I am all in for Us. As proof of my excitement for the film, I actually went and saw it at a 10:30 AM screening on the Friday it opened.

Then the movie started and my excitement dissipated and diminished with every passing second that the film played until I was left completely bored and uninterested for the final hour of the nearly two-hour film. I was not the only one who was bored, as in my screening there were only four people, me and three Black men in their twenties or so, who came in individually and sat by themselves. The “phone check index” with Us was very high, as every single one of those men checked their phones at least ten times times throughout the screening.

The biggest problem with Us is that for a horror movie, it isn’t even remotely scary. There are no legitimate thrills or chills in this movie and there is a startling lack of tension.

Another problem is, much like Get Out, it is poorly shot and not very well-made. There are a lot of shots of darkness in the film, which is to be expected in a “horror” movie, but they are poorly executed and end up being little more than just a murky, dark screen. I know that sounds bizarre to the uninitiated, but there is a difference between darkness and a lack of light. “Darkness” is created by using lighting techniques to create a crisp contrast where you enhance the mood but maintain visual clarity and with it interest. For an example of cinematographic “darkness:, go watch The Favourite from last year and see how well they shoot with just a single candle as the lighting. On the other hand, “lack of light” is simply a lack of a light source and brings with it little to no visual structure and fails to create or enhance mood but only diminishes visual clarity and capacity.

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In addition, how is it that the filmmakers couldn’t figure out that you need to light people with darker skin tones differently from lighter toned people when you shoot them in low light? Besides being exquisitely beautiful, Lupita Nyong’o is very dark skinned, so why wasn’t there any subtle light used to reflect off of her in the shots with lower light? Lighting her properly would not only make her visible to viewers but highlight her powerful performance and accentuate her exquisite bone structure and features (like was done in the photo to the left). By not lighting her effectively in the film, Nyong’o gets washed out by the faux darkness/lack of light, and even in the light Peele’s camera often loses the detail of her striking features. Maybe I am simply going blind or maybe the projector at my theatre was sub-par (I saw it at the Arclight, a high end theatre here in Los Angeles) or maybe the cinematographer, like cosmetic companies, doesn’t realize you need to light differently and use a different color palate to accommodate different skin tones. Again…maybe this is an issue with my vision or with the poor condition of America’s projectors, both of which are very distinct possibilities, but then again so is cinematic malpractice.

And finally, another problem with the film is that while the trailer presented an intriguing premise, the film’s narrative ends up expanding too broadly and in doing so dilutes any potential tension. Instead of making a focused and intimate film about just one family and their personal/familial shadow, Peele expands his thesis and by doing so neuters the film of all its power. The trailer had me thinking this film was sort of a crazy combination of The Shining, Straw Dogs and Cape Fear or something like that…all of which show families/couples under extreme pressure from relentless evil foes.

In narrative, thematic, symbolic, mythical and even political terms, Us is ultimately kind of a mess of a movie that feigns both artistic and popular entertainment pretensions whilst spoon-feeding its political/social message with such unsubtle and cringeworthy lines as '“We are Americans.”

Us is everywhere and nowhere all at once, and tries to be everything and ends up being nothing at all. Is the film about capitalism? Racism? Collective guilt? Collective shame? America’s shadow? The film is sort of about all of those things all at once and thus ends up not really being about any of them. The film lacks narrative cohesion, thematic coherence and dramatic compulsion and it never commands your attention.

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On the bright side, the cast do the very best they can with the little they are given. Lupita Nyong’o, who plays the Winston family matriarch Adelaide, should be commended for picking the movie up and carrying it on her back. Nyong’o is a magnetic screen presence and it is impossible to take your eyes off of her, which is why it is so frustrating that she is so poorly shot and lit. Nyong’o gives her all but the film fails to live up to her strong work in it.

Winston Duke plays Adelaide’s husband Gabe, and is another top notch actor who is poorly served by the film. Duke is a charming presence but is terribly underused in Us, and his character often feels tonally out of place with the rest of the film.

The two younger actors, Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex, play the Wilson’s children Zora and Jason, give solid performances that get scuttled by the visual and narrative mess that is the movie.

In the lead up to Us’s release, the media has once again turned on the hype machine regarding Jordan Peele. There are some who are actually calling him the new Hitchcock, which is pretty stunning considering he’s only made two films and both of them are painfully mediocre. Trust me when I tell you that Jordan Peele is not the next Alfred Hitchcock…he isn’t even the next M. Night Shyamalan…at least not yet. Maybe Peele will grow into being a Hitchcock or will have a few more moderate hits then be exposed for being a cinematic fraud like Shyamalan…anything is possible…but the latter seems much more likely, especially after seeing Us.

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The critical love for Us is transparently, blatantly and shamefully a result of a “woke” cultural agenda held by film critics which holds diversity and inclusion in much higher regard than it does the art of cinema. I get the excitement around Peele, I genuinely do, but at the end of the day there is simply no there there. Peele, much like his films Get Out and Us, is cinematic fool’s gold, and anyone holding him up as an a formidable auteur is going to be left looking very foolish…the ham-fisted attempts at making on-the-nose social statements in Us are proof of that.

I remember decades ago Nicholas Cage was revered as some sort of acting genius, like the second coming of Brando except funny. Well…I knew back then he was a fraud and no one listened…and history proved me right and exposed Mr. Cage’s artistic vacuity. I think the same will be true of Jordan Peele. And to be clear, I don’t dislike Jordan Peele and I don’t want him to fail, in fact he seems like a good guy and I wish him success because I want SOMEBODY…be it Peele or anybody else, to be the next Hitchcock or Kubrick or Altman or whomever because I love cinema and cinema needs great auteurs. I wish there were more great film makers in the world not less, but wishing doesn’t make it so, and all the film critics in the world wishing Peele’s movies were great doesn’t make them any better and it certainly doesn’t make him a great filmmaker.

The hype machine is doing Peele no favors either, at least not in the long run. Yes, it will drum up business…hell, the hype and the great trailer had me so excited to see Us I trudged out to the theatre on opening day and I was really hoping it was awesome. The problem though is that it wasn’t…and that is sort of a big problem. The critical hype around Peele can only last so long before audiences tune out or get angry. This is what happened to M. Night Shyamalan, whose early films were considerably more financially successful than Peele’s. Once the bloom came off the Shyamalan rose his career plummeted and he has been struggling for years to try and get his filmmaking head above Hollywood waters ever since.

On the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, Us currently has a 95 critical score, which is extremely high. In contrast, the film has a 69 audience score, which in my eyes, and probably the eyes of the other audience members at my screening who would rather look at their phones than at Us, is a much more accurate assessment of the quality of the movie. It is striking that in the crazy world in which we now live, critics adore a supposedly crowd pleasing, populist piece of entertainment like Us much more than the crowd it is supposed to be pleasing. As previously stated, I think the critical love for this film and for Peele is mostly powered by the White liberal guilt of film critics, which means that while the film is not philosophically or politically insightful enough to be worthwhile viewing, the hype surrounding it and Jordan Peele is much more instructive and insightful about the world we live in than anything found in the film.

In conclusion, Us could have been a really fascinating movie, but it ends up being a terribly boring disappointment because it is so poorly written and executed. Us is too visually muddled, narratively incoherent and cinematically flaccid for me to recommend you see it in the theatre, but if you really do want to see it I say wait until it is on Netflix or cable and see it for free.

©2019

Hereditary: A Review

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****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****

My Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars                     Popcorn Curve Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT/SEE IT. A decent but not great horror movie that boasts two strong performances. Worth seeing for free with MoviePass or on Netflix/cable if you have a chance but not worth paying full price at the theatre.  

Hereditary, written and directed by Ari Aster, is the story of the Graham family who experience strange happenings in the wake of their reclusive grandmother's death. The film stars Toni Colette with supporting turns from Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff and Millie Shapiro. 

Horror films are not usually my thing but the ones I find to be the best and the scariest, The Shining, The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby all deal with existential threats from the spiritual/supernatural realm. Hereditary falls into the same type of horror film as those three classics, but while it is entertaining and has many quality elements, it fails to coalesce into a cinematic whole that lives up to the high standards of the unholy trinity of films mentioned above. 

In execution, Hereditary falls short of being what I consider truly noteworthy cinema, but with that said, the subtext of the film is absolutely mesmerizing and for that reason alone I was glad I used my MoviePass to go see it. Hereditary, intentionally or unintentionally, is a metaphor for Trump's America (the lead character even says "I am the only one who can fix this") and an ominous warning for what lies ahead for us all…but more on that at another time.

Beyond the fascinating themes bubbling just under the surface of Hereditary, the film also boasts two exceptional horror film performances from Toni Colette and Alex Wolff.

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Colette is stunning as Annie, the mother of the cursed Graham family. Watching her simultaneously be wrapped too tight yet also wildly unraveling is a disturbing pleasure. Colette's Annie is perpetually containing a deep and pulsating wound that at times manifests so powerfully it jumps out of her mouth and cruelly strikes the ones she loves. Colette's ability to vividly portray Annie's spiral downward and descent into shadow is a testament to her deft skill and enormous talent.

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Alex Wolff also gives a powerful performance as the families teenage son Peter. There is a sequence, which is pivotal to the film, where the camera stays in close up on Wolff's face without cutting away for a very extended period of time. Wolff absolutely crushes this very difficult sequence, never once hitting the slightest of false notes. Director Avi Aster obviously knew the gem he had in Wolff, for he effectively uses him in numerous extended dramatic close ups and Wolff is seamless every time. Wolff is an impressive actor and his future is bright indeed. 

Gabriel Byrne is one of my favorite actors and he plays Steve, the Graham family father. Years ago I had a transcendent experience sitting in the front row for Byrne's performance on Broadway in Eugene O'Neill's Moon for the Misbegotten. The staging of the play left Byrne about four feet from me for almost the entire second half of the production, and as he sat there weeping and wailing and emotionally contorting himself in all sorts of ungodly O'Neill-ian ways, I felt as if he was bringing to life my own tortured Irish sub-conscious. Byrne is an under appreciated actor and sadly, in Hereditary, Byrne is criminally underused, and for the life of me I cannot figure out why, as the film suffers because of it. 

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Milly Shapiro plays the Graham's odd daughter Charlie. There is something wrong with Charlie, she may be autistic, or mildly retarded or something along those lines. Shapiro does well to embody Charlie's discomfort with being in the world in the state she is in. Shapiro is also pretty fearless as she let's the filmmakers make her look as distorted and odd as possible, which benefits the film a great deal but couldn't have been easy. 

Director Ari Aster and cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski do solid work in using the camera to heighten tension and fear. Pogorzelski's use of shadow is particularly effective in raising the creepy factor throughout the film, and he also pulls off some unconventional camera maneuvers that work surprisingly well.  

Pogorzelski's cinematography combined with Colin Stetson's music and the film's sound effectively set a very creepy mood and tone to the film. Stetson's music is particularly unsettling as just like the film's foreboding sub-text, it dramatically haunts from just below the viewers conscious attention. 

Ari Aster is a much more polished director than he is a writer. I felt Aster, much like his lead character Annie, was unable to keep control of the film for the duration. As the story expands and becomes more unwieldy, Aster loses his grip on it and the film loses much of its power. But to Aster's credit, even though the ending feels a bit out of place in the context of the rest of the film, I did find it well conceived and executed. 

As for the sub-textual themes that I found so engrossing and insightful for our time and for what lies ahead...I will write a separate piece about that this coming week because it would be much too difficult to get into it here without giving some spoilers away. 

In conclusion, Hereditary is a decent horror movie but it falls well short of being a great film. While I was glad to see it, I was even happier that thanks to the joys of MoviePass, I didn't technically pay full price to see it. If you like horror films in general, definitely see Hereditary in the theatre, as you will most likely love it. If you are lukewarm on horror films (and don't have MoviePass), then you can wait to see it on cable of Netflix and not be any worse for wear. 

©2018