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Spoiler-free “Us” Review Plus Movies for Scaredy Cats

George Wolf George Wolf Spoiler-free “Us” Review Plus Movies for Scaredy Cats
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This is the weekend for filmmakers, as theaters are full of great films made with passion by talented writer/directors whose work you should see. All of it. Including these gems.

Us

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Jordan Peele loves horror movies. How cool is that?

It’s evident from the strangely terrifying opening moments of Us, when a little girl watches what is probably MTV from her suburban couch, the screen flanked by stacks of VHS tapes including C.H.U.D., and you’re pulled in to an eventful birthday celebration for this quiet, wide-eyed and watchful little girl (Madison Curry).

From a Santa Cruz carnival to a hall of mirrors to a wall of rabbits in cages—setting each to its own insidious sound, whether the whistle of Itsy Bitsy Spider or Gregorian chanting— Peele draws on moods and images from horror’s collective unconscious and blends them into something hypnotic and almost primal.

Then he drops you 30 years later into the Wilson family truckster as they head off for summer vacation. The little girl from the amusement park, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o – beyond spectacular) is now a protective mom.

And that protective nature will be put to a very bloody test.

A family that looks just like hers – doppelgängers for husband Gabe (Wnston Duke), daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), son Jason (Evan Alex) and Adelaide herself – invade the Wilson’s vacation home, forcing them to fight for their lives while they wonder what the F is going on.

Even as Peele lulls us with familiar surroundings and visual quotes from The Lost Boys,  Jaws, then Funny Games, then The Strangers and Night of the Living Dead and beyond, Us is far more than a riff on some old favorites. A masterful storyteller, Peele weaves together these moments of inspiration not simply to homage greatness but to illustrate a larger, deeper nightmare. It’s as if Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland turned into a plague on humanity.

Loosely based on an old episode of Twilight Zone (which, not surprisingly, Peele is rebooting), Us is a tale full of tension and fright, told with precision and a moral center not as easily identifiable as Get Out‘s brilliant takedown of “post racial America.”

Do these evil twins represent the darkest parts of ourselves that we fight to keep hidden? The fragile nature of identity? “One nation” bitterly divided?

You could make a case for these and more, but when Peele unveils his coup de grace moment (which would make Rod Serling proud), it ultimately feels like an open-ended invitation to revisit and discuss, much like he undoubtedly did for so many genre classics.

While it’s fun to be scared stiff, scared smart is even better, a fact Jordan Peele has clearly known for years.

Guess who he’s reminding now?

Grade: A-

Gloria Bell

by Hope Madden

Six years ago, Chilean filmmaker Sebastian Lelio released a vibrant and unapologetic look at aging and living with his magnificent Gloria. He re-images that gem with Gloria Bell, his second English language film, placing the incomparable Julianne Moore at the center of a different kind of coming of age story.

Moore is Gloria, a single fiftysomething who’s starting to feel her mortality. The film itself is a character study of the type Lelio does best. His films nearly always focus unflinchingly on the struggles of a woman trying to live freely and authentically.

As with his Oscar-winning A Fantastic Woman, his underappreciated Disobedience, and the original Gloria, Lelio’s observational and unobtrusive direction trusts the lead to carry the weight of the film. Moore characteristically rises to the occasion.

In Moore’s hands Gloria is perhaps a tad more reserved, a little more tentative than the firebrand depicted by Paulina Garcia in the original, but she’s no less wonderful. As Gloria struggles between the freedom and the loneliness of independence, and as she comes to terms with her own mortality, Moore’s tenderness and vulnerability will melt you and her sudden bursts of ferocity will delight.

John Turturro offers impeccable support as Gloria’s love interest. The performance is slippery and unsettlingly believable. He’s joined by strong ensemble work from Michael Cera, Brad Garrett, Alanna Ubach and Holland Taylor, each of whom delivers the spark of authenticity despite limited screen time.

But make no mistake, Gloria Bell is Moore’s film.

Is this just another in a string of brilliant performances, one more piece of evidence to support Moore’s position among the strongest actors of her generation? No.

Gloria Bell is a beautiful film, one that fearlessly affirms the potency of an individual woman, one that recognizes the merit of her story.

Grade: A-

Dragged Across Concrete

by George Wolf

Songwriter Jim Steinman, best known for baroque and dramatically verbose musical epics often belted out by Meat Loaf, has said in interviews that he would love to write 3-minute pop toe tappers, he just doesn’t know how.

Filmmaker S. Craig Zahler can probably relate. Dragged Across Concrete is his third feature as writer/director, and he’s still clearly invested in the long game. Like Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99, Zahler’s latest is full of strangely indelible characters and memorable dialogue, a film anchored in creeping dramatic dread that finally explodes with wonderfully staged brutality.

Brett (Mel Gibson) and Anthony (Vince Vaughn), street-smart cops in a fictional urban jungle called Bulwark, get popped when a bystander captures one overly zealous interrogation on video. A suspension without pay is something they’re forced to accept, but it isn’t long before Brett has a plan to make up for the lapse in funds with a little “proper compensation” on the side.

But of course, they’re not the only ones looking for a score.

Henry (a terrific Tory Kittles) is fresh out of the joint and needs money for his family. His old friend Biscuit (Michael Jai White) hooks them both up as drivers for a lethal bank robber (Thomas Kretschmann), and the long fuse to a standoff is lit.

This is Zahler’s slowest burn yet, but he keeps you invested with a firm commitment to character, no matter the screen time. From a new mother with near-crippling separation anxiety (Jennifer Carpenter) to a loquacious bank manager (Fred Melamed) and a shadowy favor-granter (Udo Kier), nothing in the film’s 159 minutes feels superfluous.

In fact, quite the opposite.

As Zahler contrasts the cops with the robbers, the sharply-defined supporters orbiting the core conflict only add to its gravity, despite a few moments than seem a bit too eager for Tarantino approval.

Gibson is fantastic, drawing Brett as the real bulwark here, defending what he feels is his with a savage, unapologetic tenacity. Vaughn, re-teaming with Zahler after a standout turn in Cell Block 99, again shows how good he can be when pushed beyond his default setting of “Vince Vaughn.”

Finally, the steady march of battered souls, desperate measures and eclectic soundtrack choices comes to a bloody, pulpy head, staged with precision and matter-of-fact collateral damage.

Zahler’s command of his playbook is hard to ignore. Though the glory of Concrete‘s payoff never quite rises to the breathtaking heights he’s hit before, his confident pace and detailed observations make for completely absorbing storytelling.

And two out of three ain’t bad.

Grade: B

3 Faces

by Rachel Willis

Playing only this weekend at the Wexner Center for the Arts.

After receiving a distressing video from a young, aspiring actress, Behnaz Jafari’s life is thrown into turmoil. Playing herself in director Jafar Panahi’s largely fictionalized narrative about cultural differences, honor, and the dreams of a young girl, Jafari abandons the set of her current project to travel to a remote village in northwestern Iran. Haunted by this plea for help, she feels compelled to seek out the young woman.

Panahi, also playing himself, accompanies Jafari on her search. Though the director is, in fact, in the midst of a 20-year filmmaking ban imposed on him by the Iranian government, he once again manages to make a thought-provoking films examining life in his country. Here he looks at the struggles of three actresses at different points in their careers: a pre-Revolution actress named Sharzad, current star Jafari, and the young actress in need, Marziyeh Rezaei.

Rezaei’s won an opportunity to study acting, which her parents have accepted as a condition of accepting an engagement. Learning that her parents have no intention of upholding their end of the bargain, Rezaei’s desperation compels her to reach out to Jafari, whom she believes can help convince her parents to let her go.

While searching for Rezaei, Jafari and Panahi find themselves engaging with a number of villagers. Most of the exchanges are comical. The residents are at times star-struck, sometimes suspicious, and often dismissive of the “entertainers.” The conversations revolve around an excellent stud bull, the magical properties of foreskin, and the pretension of people from the city, among other things. These interactions reveal a lot about the people in Rezaei’s village, and the kind of challenges she faces.

For the majority of the film, Panahi’s camera focuses on Jafari. Even during scenes where the story seems to follow another character, our focus remains on Jafari. When Panahi does shift focus, it can’t help but draw your attention. Again, during what appear to be meaty scenes – as when Jafari speaks with Rezaei’s parents—we are not privy to the action. Instead, this time, we remain with Panahi as he wanders away from Rezaei’s house and watches Sharzad from afar as she paints. It’s only through a car alarm in the background that we understand the possibility that not everything is well back at the house.

Minimalist in style and tone, Panahi’s film still mines the deepest wells of human emotion.

Grade: A

Also opening in Columbus this week:

An Elephant Sitting Still (NR)

Kesari (NR)

More Than Blue (NR)

Out of Blue

Triple Threat (R)

Read more from George and crew at MADDWOLF and listen to his weekly movie review podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.

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