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Movie review: Horror R not ‘Us’

Published April 03. 2019 12:28PM

“We have met the enemy and he is us.”

“Pogo” comic strip,

Walt Kelly, 1953

“Us” is not an altogether bad film.

It’s quite good in direction, performances, cinematography and soundtrack.

That said, “Us” is a disappointing sophomore effort from writer-director Jordan Peele, following his critically acclaimed hit, big-screen directorial debut, “Get Out” (2017).

Whereas “Get Out” explored socioeconomic themes layered upon the leitmotif of a horror film, “Us” lacks overarching intellectual plumbing.

Instead of plumbing the depths, “Us” shows us the plumbing. “Us” is a straight-out horror film.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s a disappointment, though. Perhaps my expectations were too high.

“Us” has its share of jump cuts and will have you scared, anxious and tense during much of its overly long run time (there are two too many endings). Along the way, some sequences border on the ludicrous, mawkish and downright dopey.

Despite the hype, overwhelming positive audience response and most critics’ rave reviews, “Us” can be compared to “The Blair Witch Project” (1999). It’s like the carnival-show barker who cajoles you into dropping your hard-earned money only to be disappointed once you get inside the sideshow tent.

The plot for “Us” is based on the three most important words in horror films and real estate: location, location, location.

In this instance, it’s the timeworn house in the woods by a lake, here the Santa Cruz, California, area.

Peele’s screenplay doesn’t match the leads’ acting, which is splendid.

“Us” is watchable for its performances, especially that of Lupita Nyong’o (Oscar recipient, supporting actress, “12 Years a Slave,” 2014, who was also in “Black Panther,” 2018, and “Star Wars: Episode VII,” 2015) in the lead role of Adelaide Wilson-Red.

Nyong’o is one of the cinema’s most-striking screen presences. The Yale School of Drama graduate has the acting chops to bring intrigue to every scene. Her face transports the moviegoer to her inner emotions.

That she plays the dual role of Red, her nemesis, is all the more impressive in “Us.”

Red, as with others in Adelaide’s family, is described in publicity for “Us” as a doppelgänger, defined as an apparition or double of a living person. The term “tethered” and shadows is also used.

Winston Duke (“Black Panther”) is terrific as Adelaide’s husband, Gabe Wilson-Abraham. With his index finger pushing up his glasses on the bridge of his nose, to his affectionate “Dadisms” and Dad jokes, to his fierce sheltering and defense of his family, Duke gives a wonderfully contained performance.

Shahadi Wright Joseph (Zora Wilson-Umbrae), who is full of energy and absolutely delightful, and Evan Alex (Jason Wilson-Pluto), who is well-cast as her quieter introspective brother, have breakout roles.

After establishing the doppelgänger theme with some jarringly good scenes with the Wilson family, “Us” veers off in a literal direction.

A neighboring family: none other than Allentown native Tim Heidecker (TV’s “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!,” 2007) as Josh Tyler-Tex, and Elisabeth Moss (Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” 2017-present), as his wife Kitty Tyler-Dahlia, plus their two daughters, also have menacing opposites in burgundy jumpsuits who brandish the big gold scissors when their doubles go into attack mode.

They wreak havoc in their contemporary-design home to the original recording of the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations.” The ironic use of a happy hippy song to the tune of bloodbath violence is the film’s most smugly shocking scene.

It’s then that “Us” becomes a big joke, akin to “Scary Movie” (2000) or, worse, devolves into a routine slasher movie or zombie flick. Peele invokes the very “Don’t go there” trope of every ridiculously bad, cliched, predictable horror movie that he so expertly lampooned in “Get Out.”

“Us” gets stuck further in the sand when Adelaide returns to the childhood horror of a seaside, mirrored funhouse, with the sign, “Find Yourself,” which symbolically, one would think, gave her the nightmare doppelgänger to begin with.

Instead of sticking to psychological underpinnings that would seem to be the basis of “Us,” Peele makes the regrettable choice of making the horror literal, sending Adelaide down the rabbit hole (a la Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel “Alice in Wonderland”) to an underground dynamo, institutionallike barracks bunks, 1970s-era style hallway recalling a scene in director Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” (1980), dozens of white bunnies skittering around the premises, a homeless man with a sign stating an endtimes biblical quotation, Jeremiah 11:11 (akin to Samuel L. Jackson’s Bible-spouting Jules Winnfield in “Pulp Fiction,” 1994), plus the poster, song and image (in “Us,” lines of folks in burgundy jump suits) of 1986’s “Hands Across America” when 6.5 million held hands for 15 minutes across continental United States, raising $34 million to fight hunger and homelessness ($15 million was distributed after operating costs, according to The New York Times).

The also makes cursory references to other films via characters wearing T-shirts emblazoned with logos for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” song and music video (1982) and the movie, “Jaws” (1975).

We get the mise-en-scène that Peele is going for.

He fails to connect the dots.

My head was spinning with confusion faster than Linda Blair’s in “The Exorcist” (1973).

Peele peels away the artifice of “Us” to reveal ... more artifice.

It’s too bad. “Us” has its moments, quite a few of them humorous (for example, a reference to “Home Alone,” 1990), not unlike Peele’s sketch comedy work on TV’s “Mad TV” (2003-09) and “Key & Peele” (2012-15) with writing and acting partner, Keegan-Michael Key.

“Us” doesn’t add up.

A sketch comedy show does not a movie make.

We have met the antithesis of a solid horror film and it is “Us.”

Horror R not “Us.”

“Us,” MPAA rated R (Restricted Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian. Contains some adult material. Parents are urged to learn more about the film before taking their young children with them.) for violence/terror, and language.; Genre: Horror, Thriller; Run time: 1 hr., 56 min.; Distributed by Universal Pictures.

Credit Readers Anonymous: “Us” was filmed on location in Santa Cruz, California. The soundtrack includes

Box Office, March 29-31:

Unreel, April 5:

“Billboard,” No MPAA rating: Emmaus High School graduate Zeke Zelker directs Eric Roberts, Heather Matarazzo, Darlene Cates and Leo Fitzpatrick in the drama comedy. The fictional film based on 1980s’ Whitehall radio station billboard-sitters gets its national distribution release.

“Shazam!,” PG-13: David F. Sandberg directs Zachary Levi, Djimon Hounsou, Michelle Borth and Mark Strong in the fantasy comedy. A 14-year-old only need shout Shazam to become a superhero.

“Pet Sematary,” R: Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer direct Jason Clarke, John Lithgow, Amy Seimetz and Jeté Laurence in the horror film. In the remake, a family moves to a rural home near a pet cemetery.

“Teen Spirit,” PG-13: Max Minghella directs Elle Fanning, Agnieszka Grochowska, Archie Madekwe and Zlatko Buric in the music drama. A teen enters a singing contest in her quest for fame.

“The Public,” PG-13: Emilio Estevez directs himself and Jena Malone, Taylor Schilling and Christian Slater in the drama about a Cincinnati public library that becomes a shelter for the homeless during frigid weather.

Two Popcorn Boxes out of Five Popcorn Boxes

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