Friday, March 22, 2019

Us ***1/2 (2019)

Us is weightier and scarier than Jordan Peele's debut film Get Out. With plot twists at every turn, Us is rife with sociological insight in the tradition of the great horror directors. But Peele is not all about allusions and retro horror, but more about reconfiguring the genre to suit the shaky reality of the 21st century. 

The story centers on an African-American family on vacation in Santa Cruz. Adelaide, the Mom played by Lupita Nyong'o, is hiding a traumatic memory from her past that's revealed in the film's prologue. Her gregarious husband Gabe (Winston Duke) is doing his best keep everyone in good spirits. Their 15 year old daughter Zora is more interested in her phone while younger son Jason appears to be slightly neurotic. 

On the beach they socialize with alcoholic and vapid couple Josh (Tim Heideckter) and Kitty (Elizabeth Moss) who have 15 year old twin daughters. Later that night a family appears at their door who appear to be their doubles. They are not friendly. 

From that point on the Us goes into full on horror. As we become aware of what's happening and its apocalyptic possibilities the metaphors grow richer and more unsettling. Peele includes gallows humor, kind of jokes that elicit nervous laughter. The blend of night time and day time horror is another nice touch. Playful Jaws references are everywhere in the first act, serving as a red herring. 

Us refuses to answer every question it raises, questions that grow more complex as the film unfolds. As social commentary, Us forces us to think about the invincible among us. The performances are excellent, especially since the eight principles are given dual roles. Great horror also impels us to question our reality or at least what we consider it to be,  creating turmoil in the mind on the walk out from the theater. The frightening mysteries of Us offer no easy answers.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Captive State ***1/2 (2019)

Captive State pulsates along at a feverish pace. An alien invasion film with a distinct visual aesthetic, more film noir than sci-fi. Less A Quiet Place, more Children of Men

The credit sequence explains in clinical detail how it all went down. Invaders (roaches) forced the surrender of all governments, they're referred to as the "legislators," and in return for earth's resources they will allow life to go on with a sparse resemblance to the way things were before. Some view them as saviors, others are resisting. The story shifts between the collaborators and the resistance.

Set in Chicago, an occupied city, the look and feel calls back The Third Man. Gabriel (Ashton Sanders) is a young man who's part of a network in the resistance that includes people from a variety of backgrounds - teachers, artists, doctors, and former military. John Goodman is a detective working with the collaborators who do so with the hope they will be chosen to leave earth for another planet (must've missed "To Serve Man").

A plot twist occurs every few minutes. Set to a retro synth score that's used to great effect during an edge of your seat sequence at Soldier Field. Rupert Wyatt's direction feels like a gritty cinema verite documentary.  The 1983 mini-series V even comes to mind since both are similar in concept and serve as powerful allegories.

Captive State also feels timely. The "roaches" themselves rarely appear, but when they do they're creepy. What's more disturbing is how submissive people are to them, illustrated by a cringe inducing national anthem sequence that hits a little too close to home. 

Thankfully, the ending is free of a deux ex machina. Captive State is the rare movie you're ready to rewind and watch all over again.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Captain Marvel *** (2019)

In the lead up to the impending release of Avengers: Endgame, the MCU has introduced Captain Marvel as a new central character. Brie Larson does an admirable job as the first female led in a MCU film, a triumph in the face of online trolls trying to organize boycotts. Set in 1995, before most of the previous films have taken place, Captain Marvel is a prequel that keeps things light, but adventurous. 

Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, primarily known for character driven indie dramas like Half Nelson and Mississippi Grind, do manage to bring their sensibilities to the film. If there's a great strength to Marvel movies it's that they are character driven, much in the vein of the original Stan Lee comics. While I typically find the action sequences in these films to be less than spectacular, too much CGI and fast cuts, the franchise as a whole has done a remarkable job of bringing these characters to the screen.

Samuel L. Jackson is excellent as a younger Nick Fury in the days before he assembled the Avengers. Meanwhile an intergalactic war is going on across the universe. "Vers" (Larson) is an intrepid pilot in the space force with Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) as her mentor. The first 15 minutes of the film are very Flash Gordon, featuring some stellar space battle action. Through a series of events Vers ends up back on Earth in 1995, sensing she might have led an entire life there, but her memory has been erased (like Jason Bourne). The obligatory 90s references never gets too tedious (Blockbuster Video, Flannels, and Radio Shack). 

The nagging issue of Captain Marvel is that it tries to do way too many things: keeping up the MCU narrative, introducing a major new character, and a story line involving a war in space. In essence, the script had to serve as the opening act for Endgame. Brie Larson was given a challenging job of balancing all these threads, unfortunately at the expense of developing her character. More of her backstory, which we're given in all too brief flashbacks, would've have helped. There's just too much plot to cover.

Script gymnastics aside, Captain Marvel is an enjoyable film. In terms of visuals and dialogue, it stands up with the best of the MCU. Boden and Fleck also added a subtle 90s action aesthetic with nods to Terminator 2: Judgement Day and other blockbusters of the decade. 

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Glass **1/2 (2019)

Glass, the third of M. Night Shyamalan's comic book trilogy, tries to be different and almost succeeds. With Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson reprising their roles from Unbreakable and James McAvoy from Split all together, Glass showed promise to be a return to form for Shyamalan. The plot involves the three characters introduced in earlier films confined in a special hospital where a psychologist played by Sarah Paulson keeps them under observation. Willis was a security guard who discovers he's indestructible, Samuel L. Jackson a wheelchair bound supervillian, and McAvoy a dangerous man with multiple personalities. I'm a big fan of Unbreakable - a precursor to the modern comic book movies that told a great story. The TV show Heroes ran with a similar concept, namely, that there are people with super human abilities secretly among us. The last 20 minutes of Glass attempts to pull out the rug from under the audience, a bold move, but lacking in the emotional resonance that carried Shyamalan's early work. So we end up with a comic book movie that feels like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest with superheroes.