Movie reviews: 'Us' is gory, outlandish and resonates in Trump-era America
CTV News film critic Richard Crouse reviews 'Us,' 'The Aftermath,' 'The Hummingbird Project,' and 'An Audience of Chairs.'
US: 4 STARS
Director Jordan Peele follows up the Oscar-winning success of his social thriller "Get Out" with a trip to the "Twilight Zone." No, not his reboot of the famous anthology series (that will come to small screens later this year) but to a storyline he says was inspired by an episode of the Eisenhower-era show called "Mirror Image."
According to Rod Serling's original opening monologue when look-a-likes torment a young woman, "circumstances assault Millicent Barnes's (played by "Psycho's" Vera Miles) sense of reality and a chain of nightmares will put her sanity on a block."
Peele updates the doppelgänger danger premise but also ups the horror elements to tell the story of a trip gone wrong for the Wilsons, overprotective mom Adelaide (Lupita Nyong'o), goofy dad Gabe (Winston Duke) and young kids Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex).
On vacation in Adelaide's hometown of Santa Cruz, site of an upsetting incident when she was a child, the young mom is tormented by the past. Her attempts to squash the unhappy memories have been unsuccessful and now she is troubled by the fear that something bad will happen to her family if they don't pack up and head home. "I can't be here," she says. "It's too much. I feel like there's a black cloud hanging over me and I don't feel quite like myself."
Her worst nightmares come true when strange beings in red jumpsuits, carrying scissors, show up in their driveway. The really creepy part? They call themselves the Tethered because they look like each member of the Wilson family. When they invade the house, the horror is kicked up a notch or three. "They look exactly like us,' says Adelaide. "They think like us. They know where we are. We need to move and keep moving. They won't stop until they kill us... or we kill them."
When the family first spies the mysterious family in the driveway Gabe puts on a brave face. "Let's all stay calm," he says. But this isn't the kind of movie where people stay calm. Especially when feral shadow people with a grudge against anyone who grew up in the light are out for revenge. The Wilsons are a nice family confronted by something they could not imagine, let alone control. "How many of anybody are there going to be," asks little Jason.
Peele proves, as if there was any doubt, that "Get Out" was not a fluke. He skillfully navigates "Us's" story, establishing the Wilsons as a regular, likable family with a teen daughter prone to rolling her eyes and a father who's always quick with a dad joke. When the going gets grim Poole uses ingenuity, humour, a creepy kid choral score and some very scary images to add life to what might have been a simple home invasion movie. From the opening scenes in a California carnival to an audaciously choreographed climax, Peele crafts a memorable horror film with a message.
For much of the film it's the Wilsons against the world but soon the subtext sinks in. The Tethered aren't exact replicas of the Wilsons, they are the Wilsons if they didn't have advantages — education, money — and they are here to get what they think they deserve. It's a gory take on class structure, on the chasm between rich and poor, between those with power and advantages and those without. It's an outlandish story but the powerful message resonates in Trump-era America.
"Us" is given it's humanity by Nyong'o's Adelaide. Even when she's cracking heads with a fireplace poker she has compassion. She is by times a mom, a monster, a victim and the aggressor but never less than compelling. For too long women of colour have been dispensable in genre films. Nyong'o's deft touch makes one hopeful for more colour-blind casting in the horror and fantasy genres, even if the overall tone of this film is one of hopelessness.
THE AFTERMATH: 2 STARS
A story infused with both passion and compassion, "The Aftermath," starring Keira Knightley, Alexander Skarsgård and Jason Clarke, takes the themes of grief and reconciliation and pushes them through the Melodramizer Machine.
Based on the 2013 book of the same name by Rhidian Brook, most of "The Aftermath" is fiction but the idea of a British soldier sharing his requisitioned house with its former occupants was borrowed from the experience of the author's grandfather Walter Brook.
Set in Hamburg, Germany five after the close of the Second World War, the story begins with British army colonel Lewis Morgan and wife and Rachael (Clarke and Knightley) moving into a large homer requisitioned from German national Stefan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård) and his teenage daughter Freda (Flora Thiemann). Lubert, once a wealthy architect, is forced to cede his palatial home to the Morgans while Lewis assists in the post war building of the badly bombed city.
There is much to do. Lewis says Hamburg took more Allied bombs in one weekend than London took during the entire war and there are thousands of bodies still unaccounted for. Conditions are deplorable. Families living in camps fashioned around old, burned out buildings. No water, heat or electricity. Taking pity of Lubert, Lewis offers the former homeowner the chance to stay in the house. "It's chaos out there," Lewis says. "There's no where to put them. Nothing to feed them. It makes no sense to put the Luberts out."
Rachael isn't keen on the idea of sharing the house with their once, sworn enemy. "I thought we'd be together," she says. "Alone."
The two families cohabitate, mostly at a distance. "What a house," says Rachel's friend (Kate Phillips). "It's almost worth living with a German!" Stefan, once a wealthy man now relegated to living in the attic of his former home while Rachel and Lewis live downstairs. Everyone is suffering. Lewis and Rachel from the loss of a young son, the victim of a German air raids. Stefan and Freda are still mourning the loss of their wife and mother as they try and acclimatize to the life after the war.
Outside, in Hamburg, tensions are rising. A small group of Nazis in the guise of freedom fighters are stirring up trouble. When Lewis is called away to deal with one of their uprisings Stefan and Rachel form a bond based on a shared sense of loneliness and grief.
"The Aftermath" looks fantastic. Director James Kent has an eye for detail and uses the house almost as a character. The shadowy space on the wall where a portrait of Hitler used to hang looms over the proceedings, its absence helping to set the time and place. Rachel's interaction with the modernistic Bauhaus Furniture, which she finds so uncomfortable, helps us understand her state of mind.
It's an interesting canvas on which to paint this story but unfortunately the love story feels torn from the pages of a not-so-steamy Harlequin Romance. Characters change abruptly, hissing one second, cooing the next. Knightley and Skarsgård's emotional arcs suggest that the thin line between love and hate is even thinner than previously thought. Their love affair is born out of a desire to feel something, not out of actual desire and, as such, is about as steamy as a cold shower first thing on a Monday morning.
Clarke fairs better as the stoic but compassionate army colonel but this isn't his story. He's at the center of much of the action but his story of reconciliation is overshadowed by the clumsy melodrama.
THE HUMMINGBIRD PROJECT: 3 ½ STARS
Talk about getting rich quick. The schemers in "The Hummingbird Project" have a plan to transmit digital stock exchange information faster than any other company. Like a millisecond or two faster, or the time it takes a hummingbird to do a single wing flap, just enough of a jump on everybody else to earn them millions of dollars.
When we first meet cousins Vincent and Anton (Jesse Eisenberg and Alexander Skarsgård) they work at a high stakes Wall Street trading firm under the ruthless Eva Torres (Salma Hayek). Vincent is the ideas guy; Anton the computer whiz.
Vincent understands that millions of dollars can be made with the right technology, a speedy delivery system that will connect the Kansas Electronic Exchange with the New York Stock Exchange. His outlandish idea is to tunnel from Kansas to New York, through mountains and under rivers and whatever else may be in the way, in a perfectly straight line. High-speed fibre optic cables connecting the two ends should be able to transfer info in 16 milliseconds.
With an investor (Frank Schorpion) on board to soak up the operation's astronomical cost and an engineer (Michael Mando) to oversee the drilling, everything seems to be on track.
Trouble is, Anton can't write a program that gets the speed below 17 milliseconds. In this case 16 vs. 17 milliseconds is like comparing the speed of a Lamborghini and a garden snail. Also, their old boss Eva, a billionaire who values loyalty above everything except money, is looking to beat them at their own game.
In the surface this is a quintessential story of American largess, the kind of big thinking that saw the country lead the world in advancement for much of the last century. Dig a little deeper and it becomes a cautionary tale of dialling up the speed of life for the sake of speed and a few dollars.
Guiding us on this philosophical journey are Vincent and Anton. Eisenberg begins the film doing a riff on his Zuckerberg portrayal from "The Social Network" but as the story goes on he drops the sociopathic quest for success to embark on a different, more human journey. (NO SPOILERS HERE) Vincent remains a big thinker but as it becomes clear he is chasing a windmill he gearshifts, allowing his human side to come to the surface.
Eisenberg impresses but it is Skarsgård who steals the show. Balding and paunchy, the heartthrob of "True Blood" has been put aside in favour of an eggheaded character prone to panic attacks and fits of rage. He is the film's most vivid character and its nice to see Skarsgård push the limits of what he can do on-screen.
"The Hummingbird Project" sets its sights beyond the story of Wall Street intrigue to focus on something much bigger, the effects of global capitalism.
AN AUDIENCE OF CHAIRS: 3 ½ STARS
Based on the award-winning novel of the same name by Joan Clark, "An Audience of Chairs" is the story of a manic depressive woman's pursuit of compassion and connection.
When we first meet Maura Mackenzie (Carolina Bartczak) she's eyeing a career as a concert pianist. With an upcoming audition for an American tour she and daughters Bonnie (Grace Keeping) and Brianna (Lauren Patten) head to their Newfoundland summer home for some rest and relaxation. Just as they arrive Maura's journalist husband Duncan (Chris Jacot) calls with some bad news. On assignment in Russia, he's decided to stay for the rest of the summer to follow a lead.
Faced with missing her audition and feeling her career aspirations taking a backseat to his, she falls into a depression. She sleeps through the day as her young children look after and feed themselves. Worse, on a day trip Maura, in a manic state, leaves the girls unattended, open to danger.
Duncan returns after the incident and relocating the kids to Scotland. Diagnosed with bipolar II disorder, followed by a full-scale breakdown and a suicide attempt, Maura is alone as her mental health deteriorates. At her lowest moment she meets good-natured truck driver Ben (Gord Rand) who becomes her boyfriend.
Jump ahead twenty years. The children are grown, strangers to Maura who hasn't seen them in decades. When it is announced that Bonnie will be married in the local church, Maura hopes for forgiveness and reconciliation.
"An Audience of Chairs" does not pull any punches in its examination of Maura's struggle with mental illness. Bartczak never slips into caricature or loses sights of the character's humanity. The story dips into some very bleak territory but the lead performance reminds us that Maura is more than her mental illness; that she is a person of depth and resilience. She's a strong character at the centre of an important story.
Richard Crouse shares a toast with celebrity guests and pundits on the talk show Pop Life on CTV NewsChannel and CTV. Catch up on all the entertainment news, reviews and interviews at the Pop Life website.
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