Us

us-movie-poster

Weird things can happen on vacation. Many of us have stories we could tell.

None as weird though as the tale of the Wilsons, a typical American family on a typical getaway to a cabin in the woods. Their vacation is interrupted by an odd quartet of dead ringers for each of them, in red jumpsuits. These menacing dopplegangers unleash a night of terror and violence.

Writer/director Jordan Peele has crafted another winning film. Us is a suspense thriller with plot elements that will have you thinking and rethinking about the story well after you leave the theater.

Us has laughs as well. Nothing as gutbustingly funny as the best Key and Peele bits on Comedy Central, but enough to take a bit of the edge off at timely intervals.

The mom, Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o), has a backstory which is told in the film’s opening segment. Her memory of a scary time in a funhouse from childhood causes her to have qualms about going to Santa Cruz beach with the family. But her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) cajoles her and the kids Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) into a day at the shore.

At the beach, they hang with family friends the Tylers (Elizabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker and Cali and Noelle Sheldon). The dads have a cordial visit, but Adelaide’s nervousness inhibits any meaningful mom talk with Mrs. Tyler. When Jason briefly disappears, Adelaide freaks out until he is found. Then when the Wilsons get home that the real horror begins.

Nyong’o is the key player among the talented cast. As Adelaide’s doppleganger, she is the only one among that crew who can speak coherently, although in an unpleasant, distorted voice.

The Us soundtrack features the haunting opening song “Anthem” from composer Michael Abels as well as several tunes by pop artists ranging from Janelle Monae to the Beach Boys.

Yes, the film’s title is the name of our country: U.S. And when asked “who are you” Adelaide’s doppelganger replies, “We’re Americans!” So you may impose whatever political message you wish. Or you can just choose to be entertained by a well-made film!

Interestingly, among those receiving special on-screen thanks at the end of the movie is Steven Spielberg. In a way, Us recalls stories Spielberg told in films like E.T. (director) and Poltergeist (story/script) of normal families facing extraordinary occurrences.

A recommendation: see this film sooner rather than later when spoilers are more likely to be freely shared online and in conversations with friends and family.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Bridge of Spies

With the pedigree Bridge of Spies possesses, it’s no surprise that this is solid filmmaking. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by the Coen brothers (with Matt Charman). Starring Tom Hanks.

Filled with memorable scenes depicting the times and specific events of the Cold War era, Bridge of Spies is an “inspired by true events” tale of the competition and distrust between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.

James Donovan (Hanks) is an attorney in New York chosen in 1957 by his boss Thomas Watters (Alan Alda) to represent Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance) who is charged by the U.S. with espionage. Watters and Donovan presume he’s guilty, but agree to provide competent counsel. When the verdict is conviction, Donovan privately lobbies the judge against a death sentence for Abel, suggesting that the spy may be of greater value to U.S. interests if he is kept alive.

A few years later, after U.S. U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austen Stowell) is shot down over the U.S.S.R. and taken prisoner, the U.S. offers to swap Abel for Powers. Donovan is chosen to make the deal.

In East Berlin, shortly after the wall has been erected, Donovan overplays his hand, leading to the story’s tense climax on the real-life Glienicke Bridge.

The events and people in the story are real. The details of the story may be subject to what David Letterman referred to as “writer’s embellishment,” which frequently happens in retellings of history.

The late 50s/early 60s time period is recalled in Bridge of Spies with vintage cars, men wearing hats, lots of smoking, women only in supportive work positions and school kids being taught to duck and cover.

Tom Hanks helps cement his reputation as a bastion of American honesty and fairness, as well as a respected hero. Hanks has been compared to Jimmy Stewart, who generally played good guys who represented American values to moviegoers. Hanks’ Bridge of Spies role is meatier than a typical Stewart role.

Bridge of Spies clocks in around 2:20 but the story never drags. Even the delays in negotiating the prisoner swap only add to the narrative. Yes, Spielberg has made flashier movies, but Bridge of Spies is excellent, entertaining storytelling.

The Hundred Foot Journey

 

The Hundred-Foot Journey has excellent credentials. Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg are among the film’s producers. The great Helen Mirren is the main star. The film is set in France. It’s based on a popular novel. It promises and delivers gorgeous food images.

But it’s not a particularly good movie.

The Kadam family is forced to leave India. Their ultimate destination is France. They take over a building directly across the street from a Michelin-starred restaurant owned by Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren). The Indians, led by Papa (Om Puri), are boisterous in sharp contrast to Mallory and her refined crew. They are just 100 feet away. (And I’d always thought France was on the metric system!)

One of Mallory’s cooks, the gorgeous Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), befriends young Hassan Kadam (Manish Dayal), sharing cookbooks with him and encouraging him to elevate his ambitions. He gets hired by Mallory, passes Marguerite on the kitchen pecking order and, thanks to his spicing up the food just a bit, brings the restaurant up a notch to two Michelin stars.

He then moves on the to big leagues, nabbing a chef gig in Paris. He leads an active social lifestyle, but begins to miss the folks back home.

Why does The Hundred-Foot Journey fall short of greatness? The characters are not particularly compelling. It’s pleasant to watch Hassan and Marguerite’s chaste budding romance, but I wasn’t particularly concerned about their ultimate fates. Meanwhile, it’s not a surprise when Papa and Mallory are shown to have soft spots in their hearts despite their tough exterior personalities. Still, I did not have a soft spot in my own heart for either of them.

Despite my misgivings, here’s why you may want to see The Hundred Foot Journey: It’s rated PG. No language, sex or violence. It’s like a Hallmark Channel movie with a bigger budget. Also, the food looks great. (Although this year’s other foodie movie, Chef, caused me to leave the theater hungrier than THFJ did.)

The film’s message—that different cultures (and cuisines) can combine to deliver great outcomes—is an admirable one. It’s also one that can be observed in dining establishments and other businesses around St. Louis every day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lincoln

The problems with “Lincoln” include a bad script, a slow pace and a dark, almost monochromatic look. Daniel Day-Lewis as Abe, though, is terrific!

Tony Kushner, who wrote the script, is known primarily as a writer of stage plays. This script is like those written for certain 1930’s movies, which were little more than filmed plays. Too many long, ponderous speeches give “Lincoln” a stale formality that belies the urgency of the situation. Sadly, Kushner’s script sets the film medium back a few decades.

This film moves very slowly. Do not attempt to watch “Lincoln” after having dinner and a couple of drinks. I’m serious. You’ll nod off.

The lack of color is almost distracting. Yes, the story is set in the winter of 1865 and indoor lighting was primitive then, but please, Steven Spielberg, don’t make it so drab.

The reason to see “Lincoln” is to witness another killer performance from Daniel Day-Lewis. He inhabits the role with a surprisingly gentle touch. Unlike the big, boisterous characters DDL played in “There Will Be Blood” and “Gangs of New York,” his Lincoln is subdued. We see him pounding a table in the movie’s trailer, but that’s not the Lincoln we see during the vast majority of the movie.

The film’s story centers on Lincoln’s efforts to get the 13th amendment passed and put an end to slavery. He knows that the war is likely to end soon. He plays politics and cuts deals to persuade members of Congress to pass it before hostilities end.

Supporting cast includes Sally Field as wife Mary Todd Lincoln, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as son Robert, Hal Holbrook as a liaison between warring parties, Tommy Lee Jones as congressman Thaddeus Stevens and a chubby James Spader as political operative.

Director Steven Spielberg has made a flawed movie, which, nonetheless, will be shown in high school history classes for decades to come. Despite the shortcomings of “Lincoln,” the movie, we get a good impression of Lincoln, the man. Instead of thinking of him as the stoic figure on our money and in portraits and statues, we can now think of him as a living, breathing man. That is “Lincoln’s” saving grace.