Movie Review: Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’ is a Landmark Achievement in Doppelgänger-Based Horror

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CREDIT: Claudette Barius/Universal Pictures

Starring: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Evan Alex, Shahadi Wright, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Anna Diop

Director: Jordan Peele

Running Time: 116 Minutes

Rating: R for Scissor-Based Bloody Violence and Semi-Euphemistic Drug Talk

Release Date: March 22, 2019

The appeal of Get Out, Jordan Peele’s first film, had a lot to do with its underlying social message, which declared: this is the horror of what it’s like to be a black person in America. Now his follow-up Us is luring crowds primarily on the promise of its scare tactics, which are based on the fundamentally unnerving premise of a family terrorized by a group of people who look exactly like them. There is another social metaphor wrapped up in this package, and there is a good chance that you will figure it out by the end, or that someone will point it out to you. It’s clear enough, without being thuddingly obvious. Other reviews might reveal that subtext, but I’ll leave it unsaid, because there is satisfaction to be had in going in cold and having it click for you.

While Peele’s films are driven by an urge to convince people to look deeper at the world around them, they also work confidently on a surface level. Us is a striking triumph of the marriage of craft and performance. It would have to be for us to accept a world in which a group of doppelgängers, known as “the Tethered,” speak in a mixture of indefinably accented English, clicks, and blood-curdling screams. Occasionally, there is a chaotic mix of horror and comedy butting up against each other not exactly comfortably, with the tension breaking perhaps one too many times. But Peele is working in such unprecedented territory that I am inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. The acting is impressive across the board, especially in terms of a risk-taking appetite. A great deal is asked of Lupita Nyong’o, as the mother of the main family and the leader of the Tethered. She gives the sort of performance that is some unholy mix of ridiculous and brilliant – it might be a great folly, or the best of the year, or both.

CREDIT: Claudette Barius/Universal Pictures

The conclusion explains the rise of the Tethered with a twist that at first struck me as nonsensical. My instinct was to scramble back and fill in some extra-textual details that would fix what seemed like a glaring mistake. But now that I have had time to reflect, I am choosing to embrace the absurdity. It fits with a world in which people are often irrational and not fully paying attention to all that is around them. There are so many opportunities for reflection within Us, and you may be surprised, and perhaps invigorated, by what you see.

Us is Recommended If You Like: Get Out, Funny Games, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Beneath the Planet of the Apes

Grade: 4 out of 5 Scissors

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Aquaman’ is Overstuffed, But It’s Got Some Fun, Wet Weirdness

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CREDIT: Warner Bros. Pictures/DC Comics

This review was originally published on News Cult in December 2018.

Starring: Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Dolph Lundgren, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Nicole Kidman, Temuera Morrison

Director: James Wan

Running Time: 143 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Combat Taking Place Undersea and the Sea Being Turned Into Weapons

Release Date: December 21, 2018

Everybody loves Aquaman. (Unless you have an opposing claim to the throne of Atlantis, that is.) This wasn’t always the case. In fact, it used to be that in all corners of the pop culturesphere, he was the biggest punch line among all well-known superheroes. But now Arthur Curry is everyone’s buddy. Although, in terms of how much he’s keeping his identity a secret and the level of hero worship, this movie does not make it entirely clear what the world thinks of him. It seems like the audience is expected to come in with some familiarity of last year’s Justice League. But that team-up picture was not completely comprehensive about how the terrestrial world felt about him. Suffice it to say, Jason Momoa is pretty much able to play him like the jolly giant that he is, and one scene that tells us all we need to know features a gang of bikers who look like they are about to beat him up but instead excitedly request a selfie.

The meat of the story, in a movie that has about a half-dozen active plot threads, is the half-Atlantean/half-human Curry attempting to ascend to the throne of Atlantis. As the eldest son of Queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), it should be his birthright. He does not really want to be king, though, but the throne’s current occupant, his younger half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson), is planning a war against land dwellers. But that storyline gets interrupted while Arthur and his love interest/personal conscience Mera (Amber Heard) ascend back to the surface and go on a scavenger hunt to track down a MacGuffin. So for about a half hour, the two globehop and track down clues, turning Aquaman into Indiana Jones for a stretch. Then all the other Atlanteans re-appear, and just about every plotline finds time to be resolved, because this sucker is nearly two and a half hours long.

But there is still some time to leave a few threads dangling, as the sequel must always be set up, which means that a few key issues are left unelaborated amidst all the bloat. The ostensible reason that Orm wants to start a war is because of all the pollution that ends up in the oceans. But that explanation feels so throwaway and never really plays into the conflict between Orm and Arthur. And there is no sense of whether terrestrial humans are or are not going to take responsibility for all their wastefulness. Ultimately, this movie jumps all over the place and does not know where to focus, but there are thrills to be had in odd details, like an octopus playing the drums, an Atlantean fighter sticking his head into a toilet for wet relief, and Randall Park’s all-too-brief appearance as a scientist sounding a call of alarm. And it bears repeating: everyone loves Aquaman (even though he is occasionally called an imbecile).

Aquaman is Recommended If You Like: Jason Momoa’s bonhomie, Water-based weaponry, Superhero movies that stretch past two hours

Grade: 3 out of 5 Water Spears

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Baywatch’ is Gratuitous, Shameless, and in Search of a Purpose

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CREDIT: Frank Masi/Paramount Pictures

This review was originally posted on News Cult in May 2017.

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Zac Efron, Alexandra Daddario, Priyanka Chopra, Kelly Rohrbach, Jon Bass, Ilfenesh Hadera, Rob Huebel, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II

Director: Seth Gordon

Running Time: 119 Minutes

Rating: R for An Obsession with All Body Parts

Release Date: May 25, 2017

Baywatch follows the 21 Jump Street template: take a TV show from a couple decades ago that people remember but nobody is especially attached to, then blow it out to something bigger, brasher, and maybe a little meta. It may not be the most ambitious formula, but Jump Street proved that it could result in a clever commentary on the nature of reboots. Baywatch is less interested in that, or any pretensions. Instead, it mostly wants to just hang out and do its own thing. Which is fine! The film makes a go at capturing the cheeky spirit of the original on a larger, less discreet scale – it might leave you feeling a little naughty, but everyone is indulging. Alas, it ultimately descends into just the latest gross-out comedy crossed with a derivative action spectacular.

The most representative shot of Baywatch of Kelly Rohrbach’s jiggling butt while she administers the Heimlich maneuver. Rohrbach is C.J., the bubbly blond bombshell filling in for Pamela Anderson, and the choking victim is Ronnie (Jon Bass), the chubby trainee who is inexplicably recruited to the lifeguard crew. This odd couple obviously ends up together, even though Ronnie is sure C.J. is out of his league, but she knows what she wants and she does not even need to the dance moves that Ronnie learned at Hebrew school to be won over. The schlubby guy/hot girl pairing might be cliché, but the specific details in this case are actually kind of encouraging. There is something inspiring about how the guy who gets his privates stuck between the slats of a beach chair is more Casanova than laughingstock. Everyone loves Ronnie!

In fact, the great charm about Baywatch is how well everyone on the team gets along. The other major romance, between trainees Brody (Zac Efron) and Summer (Alexandra Daddario), at first appears like it will be distressingly conflict-driven but instead evolves into a much more palatable game of playful one-upmanship. Really the only conflict of any significance is the one between head honcho Mitch (Dwayne Johnson, taking over for the Hoff) and Brody. The latter is a gold-medal winning Olympic swimmer looking to repair his image after a Ryan Lochte-esque scandal, and he is only on the team because Baywatch administration wants to boost its p.r. Naturally, Mitch must teach this lone wolf the importance of teamwork. But even here, the dynamic is sympathetic and silly, with Mitch letting the homeless Brody crash at his place and pranking him with a corpse’s genitals.

The majority of this review sounds rather complimentary, even though only about 25% of the film is worth recommending. But it is that 25% about which I have the most to say. Theoretically, Baywatch could be perfectly enjoyable if it were just a plotless hangout movie, with the lifeguards saving civilians by day and porking each other by night. Instead, there must be a standard-issue action plot about a Bond-type villainess (Priyanka Chopra) with the entire town in her pocket pulling off a drug-smuggling ring. The Baywatch crew takes it upon themselves to investigate the mysterious substances and dead bodies washing up on their shores, but since they are not law enforcement, they have no authority to do so, which the actual police keeps reminding them about

Indeed, they are not law enforcement. Nor are they superheroes, which this film so desperately wants them to be. They are mortal human beings who may be highly skilled at what they do, but there is no compelling reason to believe that they can be ominously superhuman saviors. It takes the absurd stake-raising of multiple sequels to get to that point. Viewers for this style of popcorn fare are like that metaphorical frog sitting in gradually boiling water. If the stakes go up bit by bit, we do not realize until after the fact that we have forever departed any semblance of reality. But if they are jacked up to 11 right from the start, we rightfully scoff.

Baywatch is Recommended If You Like: Tight Bodies and Explosions

Grade: 2 out of 5 Slo-Mo Bouncing Breasts