All posts by One Guys Opinion

Dr. Frank Swietek is Associate Professor of History at the University of Dallas, where he is regarded as a particularly tough grader. He has been the film critic of the University News since 1988, and has discussed movies on air at KRLD-AM (Dallas) and KOMO-AM (Seattle). He is also the Founding President of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics' Association, a group of print and broadcast journalists covering film in the Metroplex area, and was a charter member of the Society of Texas Film Critics. Dr. Swietek is a member of the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS). He was instrumental in the creation of the Lone Star Awards, which, through the efforts of the Dallas-Fort Worth Regional Film Commission, give recognition annually to the best feature films and television programs produced in Texas.

US

Producer: Jordan Peele, Sean McKittrick, Jason Blum and Ian Cooper
Director: Jordan Peele
Writer: Jordan Peele
Stars: Lupita Nyong'o, Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker, Shahadi Wright-Joseph, Evan Alex, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker, Yahya Abdul-sMateen II, Anna Diop, Cali Sheldon, Noelle Sheldon and Alex Frazier
Studio: Universal Pictures

C

Evil Doppelgängers are a staple of sci-fi and horror stories (as well as network soap operas), and it’s the device Jordan Peele turns to for his follow-up to “Get Out.” Of course, he mixes it with social commentary, this time about a literal underclass. One would like to say that “Us” is as good as its predecessor, a sly combination of suspense and observation about racial politics that deservedly won an Oscar for its screenplay. Unhappily, despite some sporadically effective moments it emerges as a muddle—a lovingly made but rather pretentious example of the sophomore jinx in action.

The picture begins with a prologue set in 1986, marked by references to “Thriller” and the feel-good “Hands Across America” project (the first, after the recent HBO documentary about Michael Jackson, taking on an especially creepy vibe), in which a young girl named Adelaide (Madison Curry) gets separated from her parents (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Anna Diop) during a family visit to a beachside amusement park in Santa Cruz. Wandering into a weird hall of mirrors, she encounters what appears to be a double rather than a reflection and emerges traumatized and unable to speak.

Suddenly switching to the present, Adelaide (now Lupita Nyong’o) is travelling with her family—slightly goofy (and horny) hubby Gabe Wilson (Winston Duke) and their kids Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) to their summer house near Santa Cruz. Apparently for the first time, Gabe suggests a family trip to the beach with their rich neighbors Josh and Kitty Tyler (Tim Heidecker and Elisabeth Moss) and their twin daughters (Cali and Noelle Sheldon). Doing so proves a bad decision, starting with their coming upon a dead street person (Alan Frazier) being carted away in an ambulance; he’s the same fellow who, two decades earlier, young Adelaide had encountered in her wandering, holding a sign referring to Jeremiah 11:11. (Check it out.) Things get worse when Jason goes missing.

Still, the family gets home fine. Their tranquility is shattered, however, when their house is invaded by strange mirror images of themselves, unkempt and—with one exception—able only to howl, dressed in red coveralls and holding a scissors in one gloved hand. They threaten the Wilsons, one on one, and the episode is not an isolated one—the Tylers will receive a similar visitation, and so will many others. The result is usually fatal.

Who are these creatures, and what do they want? “Us” offers an explanation in the final reel, though a big confrontation sequence staged as a dangerous dance comes off like a deleted scene from “Suspiria” (Guadagnino’s remake, not Argento’s original) and a final twist renders the message muddled (not boding well for Peele’s upcoming “Twilight Zone” reboot). But the notion that the less fortunate in society have been badly treated is really nothing new to the genre (see Brian Yuzna’s “Society” and Wes Craven’s “The People Under the Stairs” for examples—or even the “Purge” franchise), and the Peele doesn’t really make his point clearly enough to fully resgister.

What “Us” does deliver is a good deal of scariness and splatter in the cat-and-mouse sequences of the well-to-do humans and their Doppelgängers chasing and fighting with one another (even if they become repetitious), and substantial doses of humor, much of it with zippy pop culture references. The performances are strong down the line, with the cast having a field day doubling up in their roles as both victims and perpetrators—sometimes it’s difficult to determine which is which. But Nyong’o undoubtedly takes pride of place, delivering a wrenching turn that centers things. On the technical side the crew realizes Peele’s obvious desire for a smooth, somewhat artificial look and a deliberate tempo, with standout contributions from production designer Ruth De Jong, cinematographer Mike Gioulakis and editor Nicholas Monsour. Michael Abels’ score opts for some Herrmannesque shrieks from the violins, along with a pounding throb meant to keep the tension level high.

There is a great deal of talent on display, both in front of the camera and behind it, in “Us,” but sad to say, overall the result resembles nothing less than one of the movies M. Night Shyamalan made during his long off period. One hopes that Peele won’t fall into the trap that Shyamalan did, trying to keep making pictures that followed a genre formula promising a greater and greater payoff each time. Hitchcock could get away with that, but most often it’s a losing strategy, and Peele is too capable a filmmaker to get stuck in a single groove. If he attempts something different next time around, the result could be surprising—and much more satisfying than this disappointing misfire.

CAPTIVE STATE

Producer: David Crockett and Rupert Wyatt
Director: Rupert Wyatt
Writer: Erica Beeney and Rupert Wyatt
Stars: John Goodmam, Ashton Sanders, Jonathan Majors, Vera Farmiga, Kevin Dunn, James Ransone, Alan Riuck, Madeline Brewer, Machine Gun Kelly, Kevin J. O'Connor, Ben Daniels and Caitloin Ewal
Studio: Focus Features

C-

A Trojan horse motif permeates the last act of Rupert Wyatt’s would-be action movie about an earth that has capitulated to extraterrestrial invaders and a resistance movement fighting the new status quo, and that’s curiously appropriate: a cinematic Trojan horse, “Captive State” promises to be an exciting thriller, but proves stodgy and dull.

After a brief prologue in which a couple fleeing the invaders through the streets of Chicago, their two sons in the backseat of the car, are stopped by alien enforcers, the picture jumps ahead nine years, when the new regime—with the invaders in charge as subterranean “legislators” and human quislings like Mayor Lee (Marc Grapey), Police Commissioner Igoe (Kevin Dunn) and his second-in-command William Mulligan (John Goodman) acting at ground level to keep order—is in firm control.

But as in old TV series like “V” and “Falling Skies” (as well as movies like “Red Dawn,” though there the invaders were Commies), resistance continues. Though the older of the two Drummond boys from the opening prologue, Rafe (Jonathan Majors), is listed as deceased, a legendary hero of the movement, the younger, Gabriel (Ashton Sanders, failing to match the promise of his breakthrough roles in “Moonlight” and “The Equalizer 2”) survives, a surly subject of the government who works erasing the memory of digital devices that have been banned by the aliens.

Gabriel remains sufficiently opposed to the regime, however, to refuse cooperating with Mulligan—who as the onetime partner of the boy’s father, feels a sense of obligation to the kid—in helping to unmask the resistance’s leadership and mode of operation, even as the group is plotting an assassination attempt at a big “Unity Event” being staged at Soldiers Field, where the Bears are conspicuous by their absence. He rejects Mulligan’s entreaties even after Rafe proves to be still alive and captured (and tortured) by the cops.

What follows is a confused and slapdash affair as Mulligan, played by Goodman with a perpetually sleepy, world-weary attitude, works to ferret out the ring and prevent the aliens from wiping out a whole section of Chicago, the way they famously did a troublesome area called Wicker Park years earlier. Still, he occasionally takes time off from his official duties to visit a prostitute (Vera Farmiga), who gets her clients in the mood by playing a remarkably well-preserved LP of Nat “King” Cole’s “Stardust,” CDs apparently having gone the way of all “modern” things.

“Captive State” finishes up in a last act with a major revelation about the Drummond family’s past (related through some scratchy old video) and a complete explanation for the resistance’s schemes, though the payoff frankly comes like a bomb that fizzles rather than exploding.
Perhaps that’s the result of the movie’s low budget, which allows for some blink-and-you’ll-miss them alien effects (the rocklike spaceship streaking across the sky could probably have been improved by a twelve-year old at his computer, while the actual extraterrestrials look either like giant porcupines or armored versions of “Predator”). Chicago suffers desolation again, at least from a distance in faraway vistas; the actual street scenes, including the ones around Soldier Field, have just about the same visual finesse of the “Purge” series, shot by cinematographer Alex Disenhof in the drabbest shades of gray and blue.

Along with Farmiga a number of other well-known faces make fleeting appearances in the movie—Alan Ruck and D.B. Sweeney among them—but like her they’re wasted. (There’s also another rapper transitioning to acting—a fellow who uses the moniker Machine Gun Kelly, and was previously in the notorious “Bird Box”—but he merely proves he should stick to his main gig.) Wyatt, who pumped considerable energy into “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” fails to repeat the trick here.

One might appreciate the effort to do something different on a modest budget, but ultimately “Captive State” resembles an elongated “Twilight Zone” episode with a twist ending that doesn’t quite come off. And it drags along so desultorily that watching it you might feel like a captive yourself.