US (2019) – Ambitious Horror Movie Never Seems Real

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I was really looking forward to seeing US (2019).

Written and directed by Jordan Peele, the man who gave us GET OUT (2017), one of my favorite movies from that year, US boasted creepy trailers and advanced critical acclaim.

Imagine my disappointment when the end credits rolled and I found myself realizing I had just sat through— a dud.

Yep, I didn’t like US all that much. Didn’t like it at all.

The film opens creepily enough. It’s 1986, and a young girl is with her family at a beach boardwalk amusement park. The girl walks away and enters a house of mirrors on her own, where she has a bizarre and frightening experience. The film switches to present day where the girl Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is now an adult with her own family: husband Gabe (Winston Duke), teenage daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and younger son Jason (Evan Alex).

They’re a normal enough family and early on they’re fun to watch. On vacation, they decide to go to the same beach boardwalk where Adelaide had her traumatic experience as a kid. How weird is that? I don’t think I’d take my kids to a place that held such haunting memories for me, but anyway, throughout the vacation Adelaide can’t help but feel that something bad is going to happen to her family. Of course she feels this!  She’s at the same place where she had her childhood trauma! Duh!

Her fears become reality when at night four mysterious figures show up outside their door, figures that look like another family.  Young Jason nails it when he says “They’re us.”  Because that’s who they are, strange zombielike doppelgängers of the four family members.

And it’s at this point in the film, where it introduces its horrific elements, where it should take off and soar, where for me, it simply all unravels, and I lost interest.

Why?

Not for reasons usually associated with a bad horror movie.

For starters, US is a very ambitious movie, in terms of theme and symbolic images. It plays like a college thesis. There’s a lot going on, but for me, its undoing is a lack of believability and ultimately a lack of emotion. It’s a rare thing for me to like a movie that doesn’t move me emotionally, and US didn’t move me one iota, mostly because the threat never seemed real to me, and so I never was full on board with the plight of these characters.

Sure, I appreciated what the film was saying, I understood why it was saying it, but I didn’t believe the way it was saying it. Basically, there are two versions of this family, and as the film later shows, two versions of a lot of families, and when the alternate Adelaide responds to the question of who is she with the answer, “We’re Americans,” you get the point of the two Americas. The alternate Americans are dressed in red, not a friendly color these days. I get the symbolism.

But the story as told in US made little sense to me. The story of these people’s origins never resonated with me as anything other than a symbolic treatise on our modern-day culture. As such, it distracted me from the proceedings and took away from the horror elements. The entire time the family was fighting for their lives I felt disconnected from them because their story played out less like the events in a movie and more like the pages of a college thesis paper.

So, there’s a lot to digest here, and for people who like to analyze movies, US is the film for them. For people who enjoy horror movies, I’d wager to guess those folks might be a little disappointed. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not arguing that the only good horror movie is a dumb horror movie. I love smart movies. But US tries too hard to be intellectual at the expense of being emotional.

The acting is excellent. Lupita Nyong’o excels as both Adelaide and the very chilling alternate version of her. Elizabeth Moss is equally as good as family friend Kitty and her evil doppelgänger.

Winston Duke is fun to watch as the relaxed amiable dad Gabe, although his “twin” is less effective as he lumbers around like a zombie and isn’t as frightening as some of the others. Duke and Nyong’o, who both co-starred in BLACK PANTHER (2018), make for a realistic couple, one of the few parts of this movie I found believable.

Shahadi Wright Joseph is very good as daughter Zora, as is Evan Alex as son Jason.

One of the reasons I liked GET OUT so much was it was both a scary horror movie and an incisive commentary on race. Here, Jordan Peele is working with a much broader canvas. He’s covering much more ground, but while US is a more ambitious film than GET OUT, it doesn’t work nearly as well. For starters, its story just seemed way too convoluted to be credible.

And since it wasn’t believable, I didn’t feel for the characters, and as a result ultimately didn’t care all that much for the movie.

And while there are plenty of creepy parts, I didn’t find US all that scary either.

I predict that I may like US more with subsequent viewings, because there is a lot to absorb. But my initial reaction to it was akin to reading a poem ripe with figurative language that told a story so unreal it distracted from its metaphors. In short, the ambitious US never convinced me that what it was saying was real.

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BLACK PANTHER (2018) – Superior Film Much More Than Just A Superhero Movie

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Every once in a while, the superhero film reinvents itself.  It happened twice in 2008, with THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) and IRON MAN (2008). It happened again with THE AVENGERS (2012).

And now it has happened once more with BLACK PANTHER (2018).

BLACK PANTHER is the latest superhero movie to come from Marvel, a comic book company that has been churning out top quality superhero films regularly since IRON MAN in 2008.  They show no signs of slowing down.  And while all their movies do follow a similar formula— wise-cracking superheroes who like to bicker and often fight with each other, high production values, A-list actors, superior writing, and a fun sense of humor— they have tweaked things on occasion. THE AVENGERS brought the “family” of superheroes to the forefront, where the conflicts were more about hero vs. hero than hero vs. villain.

Now comes BLACK PANTHER, a deeper, more resonating tale that reaches further into the social, political, and racial issues of our time than any superhero film before it.  As such, it’s that rare film that supersedes its superhero costuming and succeeds on a level usually reserved for thought-provoking Oscar nominated dramas.

BLACK PANTHER tells the story of Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) who is destined to become king of the African kingdom of Wakanda after his father, the king, was killed in events chronicled in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016). Wakanda is a special kingdom.  The people there have in their possession an element which gives them incredible technological and healing powers, powers they hide from world so as not to become involved in global conflicts. It’s also what gives the sitting king of Wakanda the power to become Black Panther, the warrior who protects his people.

One of T’Challa’s first challenges as king is to hunt down the villain Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), a man who has a long history of inflicting pain on Wakanda.  This chase reconnects T’Challa with CIA agent Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman) who is also after Klaue.  When Klaue escapes, one of T’Challa’s best friends W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) laments that he had hoped that T’Challa would be different from his father, but like his father, T’Challa has failed to reign in an enemy of the nation.

Things grow more complicated for T’Challa when Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) arrives in Wakanda with bombshell revelations and a challenge for the new king, both of which threaten to change everything about Wakanda and its status in the world.

I absolutely loved BLACK PANTHER.  It has all the things that have made the Marvel superhero movies successful and then some.

For starters, once more it boasts a phenomenal cast. Chadwick Boseman, who played Jackie Robinson in 42 (2013), James Brown in GET ON UP (2014), and Thurgood Marshall in MARSHALL (2017), is perfect here as T’Challa/Black Panther.  He strikes the right balance between strength, honor, heroism, and vulnerability.  He makes T’Challa the perfect leader, yet when he is challenged for his crown, the notion that he will win that challenge is anything but a done deal.

Michael B. Jordan knocks it out of the park as Erik Killmonger, the young boy abandoned by the Wakandans to grow up in the slums of Oakland, CA who had to fight every day of his life to get back to his native country.  Killmonger is one of the villains in this movie, to be sure, but so much of what he says makes perfect sense, and his view of the world is much closer to reality than T’Challa’s.  It’s a fascinating role and Jordan, the star of CREED (2015), is more than up to the task.  I haven’t felt this much empathy for a screen villain in a very long time.

Likewise, Lupita Nyong’o [12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013) and STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015)] is very good as Nakia, T’Challa’s ex-girlfriend who he spends most of the movie trying to get back together with.  Nakia is T’Challa’s rock, and she’s with him every step of the way in this adventure.

As good as Nyong’o is here, I enjoyed two of the other female performers even more. Danai Gurira, who plays Michonne on AMC’s THE WALKING DEAD (2012-2018), is mesmerizing here as the warrior Okoye. And Letitia Wright is just as good as T’Challa’s younger sister Shuri, who not only gives her king brother a hard time throughout, but is also the keeper of all the technological secrets and advancements of Wakanda.  In short, she gets to play “Q” to T’Challa’s “James Bond.”

Martin Freeman is amiable as CIA agent Everett K. Ross, and Andy Serkis is formidable as the villainous heavy Ulysses Klaue.

The cast also includes Daniel Kaluuya from GET OUT (2017) as W’Kabi and Forest Whitaker as Zuri.  As I said at the outset, BLACK PANTHER, like the Marvel superhero films which preceded it, has an A-list cast.

I found the entire movie to be pretty much mesmerizing.  Director Ryan Coogler, who also directed CREED (2015), drew me in at the outset with a combination of strong storytelling, cinematic scenes, and a Wakandan mythology that is prevalent throughout the movie.

BLACK PANTHER is loaded with memorable scenes, from the exciting to the poignant.  T’Challa’s first encounter with Klau followed by the ensuing car chase is as an exciting sequence as you’ll find.  It’s as good or better as anything done in the James Bond films.  The challenge bout between T’Challa and Killmonger is absolutely thrilling and exceedingly emotional, and the all-out climatic battle at the end of the movie is a rousing way to close out the film.

Scenes between T’Challa and his father, and Killmonger and his father are moving and sad and touch upon philosophies of life and of race.

It’s an outstanding script by director Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole. The thoughts on race alone and the plight of the black man in the world are themes that make this one above and beyond a normal superhero tale.  You can almost see the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. inside T’Chala and Malcolm X inside Killmonger as they spar on the right way to save black lives in the world.

The film also doesn’t shy away from the political, addressing current issues as well. T’Challa’s statement to the United Nations  that we must “build bridges, not barriers,” is a clear reference to a certain wall that a certain leader wants to build.

When Killmonger finds himself on the throne, questions arise as to the responsibilities of fellow leaders and the citizenry when faced with an irresponsible king with no experience.

The script goes even farther than current events, examining in general the difficulties of being a world leader, as when T’Challa’s father tells his son, “You’re a good man.  And it’s not easy for a good man to be king.”

BLACK PANTHER is more than just a superhero movie. It’s a tale for our time, a look at the responsibilities of those who possesses great power, of what happens when someone without experience gains that power and uses it for a personal and oftentimes reckless agenda, and it’s an examination of the responsibilities of race relations, of just what it means to rebel against oppressors, to achieve equality in the world without becoming that which you’re trying to overcome.  It’s as deep and as resonating a superhero film as I’ve ever seen.

But it’s also a Marvel superhero film, which means that at the end of the day, it’s also a heck of a lot of fun.

I loved BLACK PANTHER. It’s not only one of the best superhero movies to come out in a long time, but it’s also a powerful movie in its own right, as it deals astonishingly well with issues of race relations and responsibilities of those in power.

It’s a masterfully told story of our time.

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