Us (2019)

“I’m not very good at talking.”

He’s done it again, ladies and gentlemen (and assorted individuals of a nonbinary nature). Jordan Peele has submitted his CV for any and all who might have been foolish enough to have doubted his legacy as the heir apparent to Rod Serling (or Hitchcock, or Shyamalan if you live in a particularly uncharitable part of the internet). The second film helmed by the director who inexplicably turned Blumhouse Productions into a semi-prestige film production house because they were the only ones willing to take a chance on Get Out is more ambitious than its predecessor, meaning that sometimes it swings a bit wider but ultimately has the same meticulous attention to detail, from literal Chekovian guns to a multitude of characters being literally and metaphorically reflected in surfaces both pristine and cracked to even something so small as apparently intentionally offbeat snapping.

Us opens with a birthday outing for young Adelaide (Madison Curry) at the Santa Cruz boardwalk in 1986, where her loving but inattentive and immature father and her worried mother take her around the carnival games while arguing, obviously not for the first time. When Pops (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is distracted by a game of Whack-a-Mole, Adelaide wanders off and finds herself lost and terrified in a hall of mirrors, where her reflection stares back at her from every angle . . . except one. Later, the traumatized and speechless girl sits outside of a child psychologist’s office, who explains to the parents that Adelaide appears to be suffering from PTSD, prompting mom (Anna Diop) to declare that she just wants her daughter back, back to the way she was before. In the present, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is married to the nerdy but devoted Gabe (Winston Duke) and has two children, teenaged Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), who is considering quitting the track team, and elementary aged Jason (Evan Alex), an apparent budding horror fan who wears a Wolfman mask as much as possible. They go to Adelaide’s childhood home for summer vacation, where Gabe proudly shows off the boat (the Craw-Daddy) that he has recently purchased, and he convinces his wife to take the kids down to beach for the day to meet up with their friends Josh (Tim Heidecker) and Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) and their two teen twin daughters Becca and Lindsey (Cali and Noelle Sheldon). At the same beachfront where something unknown but traumatic happened to her as a child, odd coincidences begin to occur: a red frisbee lands on a towel covered in blue polka dots, perfectly covering one of them; a man that she recognizes from her childhood as a boardwalk vagrant is seen being loaded into a waiting ambulance, and Jason wanders off just as she herself had before he appears, none the worse for wear. Back home, Adelaide tells Gabe about the night that changed her life, moments before Jason appears in the room to tell his parents that there’s a family in their driveway. And then the real fear begins.

Us is a movie that it’s almost impossible to discuss without getting into spoilers (and not just about the ending twist, which is one of those perfect reversals in that about 5% of people are complaining about how “obvious” it was, 10% of people are complaining about how it was “spoiled” by promotional materials, 60% of people are pleasantly surprised by how it was cleverly seeded within the text and fits so perfectly that one realizes the story couldn’t actually exist in any other form, and 25% of people are vocally overemoting about it to any audience that will give them the satisfaction), but we’ll try. From the earliest moments, including the scene of little Adelaide watching an advertisement for Hands Across America (which apparently some people thought was made up for the film, which is sad because that means those people have never known the joy of watching classic Simpsons, apparently) on a television that is framed by VHS copies of the films The Goonies, The Right Stuff, and C.H.U.D. (the last of which prompted one of my friends to text me that the scene made him feel like he was at my house for a second, which warmed the cockles of my cold dead heart) before the screen goes blank to reveal the reflection of young Adelaide, soaking it all in. Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” music video, the repeated number 1111 (as a time, a Bible verse, and even evocatively in the logo for Black Flag, appearing on several characters’ clothing), Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, and the meaning of the line “We are Americans”: as with Get Out, no detail is too small to warrant inspection, even if this time around Peele is playing with audience expectation and subverting a more obvious and consistent interpretation of his symbolism for a more thoughtful and disquieting notion of significance. It doesn’t give too much of the film’s message away to say that it is about class and the way that it creates dark mirrors for ourselves everywhere, the way that getting out of the darkness of poverty is often impossible, and that those who manage to somehow embody the mythological idea of social mobility must do so at the expense of others, ultimately becoming complicit in the suffering of those who might otherwise have been your peers. Of course, with a film like this one, there are going to be other interpretations, but it’s all there.

Consider: Adelaide’s father, playing Whack-a-Mole, knocking down facsimiles of rodents as they try to rise up out of the darkness underground. Consider: that Gabe constantly finds himself trying to one-up Josh, only to find that Josh himself is imitating his own decisions, in an orobouros of attempts to keep up with the Joneses. Consider: that “I Got 5 On It” is about how one person covets an entire object despite said object being a dime bag that both parties going halves should share between the two of them (“I got some bucks on it, but it ain’t enough on it”). Consider: the power of art as the impetus to empower the recognition of interclass economic struggle and the ability to transcend (or at least ascend within) it. Consider: the repeated refrain of the “Itsy Bitsy Spider” that eternally attempts to climb and is forever pushed back down. Consider: when arriving at the beach house, the family eats fast food, except for Adelaide, who eats strawberries; why? Consider: what does a Black Flag t-shirt mean in 1986 when worn by a teenager working long hard hours versus being worn by the child of a comfortably wealthy family in 2019?

The performances here are powerful. It takes a powerful actor to be able to embody two different characters within a single work, and Nyong’o joins the ranks of Tricia Helfer and Tatiana Maslany in her performance as both Adelaide and her doppelgänger, “Red.” Red’s initial monologue that explains herself and her family in the format of a twisted fairy tale is particularly astonishing, as is her final speech. Duke is fantastic as the embarrassing dad as well, and every moment that he is on screen is a delight. As of this writing, I’m pretty sure that Brandon hasn’t gotten a chance to see this one (event though he is editing this review), so I’m choosing my words very carefully, but this movie comes with my highest recommendations, with a few caveats. I’m not a person who lets minor unresolved details derail my enjoyment of a film, but for those who are prone to pick at nits, there are . . . logistical issues that are never specifically addressed and which are ambiguous enough that I have no doubt those who require not only absolute realism but also utter explicitness in their art would consider them “plot holes.” So, you know, don’t take that friend with you (don’t worry, we all have at least one). Just get out and see this one, although from the box office numbers, you probably already have.

P.S.: My favorite joke is the fact that the “find yourself” hall of mirrors, subtly, has gotten a more socially conscious rebrand in 2019 to get rid of the Native American legends and myths motif for a more politically correct wizard.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Imitation Girl (2018)

I knew I was in trouble with Imitation Girl just a few minutes in, when an alien species crash-lands on Earth through a hole in the atmosphere. I’m usually very forgiving when it comes to effects work in small budget independent films, but there was just something clumsy & unsatisfying about the CGI space hole that opens in that moment. A movie about a shapeshifting space alien that takes the form of an actress it discovers on a magazine cover, Imitation Girl should be an eerie sci-fi creep-out, but the functional flatness of the way its crash-landing is rendered has all the atmospheric dread of a Sharknado sequel. Given that the actress the alien mirrors is a porn star, the film also suggests that it might have something substantial to say about identity & sex work, but it shies away from that topic in an almost bashful manner. In fact, Imitation Girl comes across super squeamish about depicting sex at all, almost to the point where it seems sex-negative about mainstream pornography as an industry. It’s a sci-fi horror film that’s reluctant to horrify, a movie about sex that’s afraid of eroticism. A more tonally intense, better crafted film could get away with those withholding impulses, but this one’s student-film flatness is too lacking in sensory pleasures to also lack those genre-specific payoffs.

What imitation Girl lacks in sexual courage & tonal intensity, it somewhat makes up for in the unpredictability of its storytelling. Not being in tune with the typical payoffs of the sci-fi horror genre allows for some surprising turns in the narrative. The doppelganger space alien does not immediately seek a confrontation with the woman whose image it cloned. It instead stumbles through the desert like an intergalactic Nell until it’s rescued by an Iranian family, who attempt to communicate with it in both Persian & English until it learns enough social skills to be able to navigate the world on its own. Meanwhile, the porn star struggles with her own confidence in independence – unsure of her profession, her choice in lovers, and her under-the-table involvement in low-level drug deals. As the audience alternates between the porn star & her space alien doppelganger, there’s sometimes a few seconds’ lag in being able to tell which version of actress ­­ we’re currently watching. It establishes a calm, unrushed rhythm in fluctuating between these two identities that’s sometimes broken by a jolting shift in reality – whether though a mirror functioning as a window or a kaleidoscopic return to the alien’s outer space roots. That’s a unique approach to genre filmmaking, although one that invites the mind to wander.

There are a couple stray elements of pure-horror at play that suggest Imitation Girl is attempting to function as an eerie sci-fi creep-out – especially in its arrhythmic strings score & early scenes of the alien doppelganger stumbling through the desert in jerky, inhuman contortions. Mostly, though, it’s a film about an identity crisis that’s having an identity crisis of its own. It wants to generate terror in the mysterious arrival of its space-alien double, but mostly leaves that journey on the backburner as the porn star goes about her daily business – stalling the alien’s story with the Iranian family for an overwhelming portion of the movie. The film wants to evoke the specificity of the mainstream porn industry to provide its central identity crisis some texture, but it’s too timid to evoke the eroticism (or terror) monetized by that trade. Its engagement with pornography as a topic comes across as remarkably old-fashioned as a result – both in its assumption that the audience finds it inherently demeaning & evil and, on a more practical level, in how it resembles a version of porno production that’s mostly faded from practice in the latest two decades. Most of the reason Imitation Girl is open for the occasional jarring surprise (Lewis Black appears in a single-scene cameo as a drug kingpin?!) is that it’s too delicately handled in its central topics for the audience to not be distracted by stray, incongruous details.

The most damming thing about Imitation Girl’s ineffectiveness is how much better its basic themes are covered in other recent sci-fi horror films. Its femme space alien identity crisis recalls the gorgeous, bone-deep creep-out of Under the Skin. Its sex worker doppelganger crisis recalls the sexed-up cyberthriller vibes of Cam. All Imitation Girl can do is surprise in its deviations from the expectations set by those contemporaries. Unfortunately, those deviations mostly arrive in its tonal & sexual timidity and its deployment of SyFy Channel-level CGI.

-Brandon Ledet

The Supernatural Romantic Tedium of Anomalisa (2015) & Schizopolis (1996)

In our initial discussion of our current Movie of the Month, the irreverently cerebral Steven Soderbergh comedy Schizopolis, I asked Boomer how he felt the film’s tale of adulterous doppelgängers differed from the similar themes in Charlie Kaufman’s recent stop-motion drama Anomalisa. In Schizopolis, Soderbergh & (his real life ex-wife) Betsy Brantley play duel sets of doppelgängers who cheat on each other in existential searches for romantic passion, only to find more of the same in their “new” partners. To me, this “Love the one you’re with” messaging felt wildly different from Anomalisa‘s central conflict, in which a traveling businessman sees the entire world outside himself as one homogeneous personality except for the woman he’s currently cheating on his wife with, until she too is absorbed into the society of milquetoast doppelgängers that populate his life once the initial spark is gone. I asked Boomer for insight on this difference because I knew he’d be better at articulating it than I would. He wrote, “Schizopolis is a film about projection, but in a way that explores the various ways that multiple individuals categorize and compartmentalize their interactions between different people depending upon the intimacy (or lack thereof) of their relationship, the difference in their social classes and the power dynamic thereof, the emotional distance between them, libido, and other factors. Instead of Anomalisa‘s Michael facing the difficulty of seeing every person–strangers, his wife, his ex, his boss–as the same, Fletcher Munson’s interactions vary, demonstrating the dissonance between his words and his thoughts in his conversations with various people.” Those differences in varying social interactions & perspectives truly are essential to what distinguishes Schizopolis from Anomalisa. It still surprises me, though, how significantly the two works overlap in form to achieve their respective goals.

One of the most immediately striking aspects of both Anomalisa and Schizopolis is the crudeness of their visual forms. Shot with no solid script while palling around Baton Rouge, Schizopolis has a strikingly informal look to it, approximating the home movies & sketch comedy hybrid that defined the style of The Kids in the Hall. For its part, Anomalisa adopts the medium of stop-motion animation, which inherently has a kind of imperfect crudeness to its motions. Offsetting the leaps made in the medium by studios like Laika, however, this film intentionally shows the creases in its characters’ faces, calling attention to its own seams & artifice. Both films also dwell on the anonymity of utilitarian spaces & the empty babble of corporate speak. In Anomalisa, Michael’s depression is amplified by the doldrums of occupying a hotel room while away on business, with nothing especially exceptional about his transient spacial surroundings. The Baton Rouge office buildings & suburban homes Fletcher Munson drifts through in Schizopolis are just as unremarkable & devoid of personality. Munson’s job writing nonsensical speeches for the L. Ron Hubbard reminiscent cult leader of Eventualism & author of How to Control Your Own Mind is also reflected in the big speech on optimizing customer service efficiency (or some other empty form of corporate chatter) Michael travels to deliver. For two films about supernatural events in which bored businessmen drift into romantic entanglements with physical copies of their partners, Anomalisa & Schizopolis both make a point to keep their visual pallets anonymously bland & unassuming. They both seek to wring the supernatural out of the mundane, which requires the outlandishness of their premises to be rooted in visual monotony. The differences between their achievements have less to do with their respective visual styles than with how one story takes boredom with the hegemony as a freeing opportunity for irreverence while the other allows that boredom to fester into contempt.

As Boomer wrote in our initial conversation, “The biggest difference between the two films is in the fact that Anomalisa only gives us Michael’s point of view and insight into his particular problems with intimacy, communication, empathy, and humanity. […] Shizopolis gives us the points of view of several people, and highlights how each of them have their own problems with communication, which vary from person to person.” It’s arguable which choice of perspective makes for a more rewarding film, but being stuck in Michael’s head certainly makes Anomalisa the more uncomfortable watch. In Schizopolis, Soderbergh casts himself as a bland everyman. Anomalisa envisions a world where every man is bland. Not only is every character outside Michael’s head boring (and vaguely reminiscent of Michael Ian Black); they’re also an annoying, unremarkable sea of braying idiots with nothing unique to offer the world. I appreciate the bizarre accomplishments of Anomalisa from an emotional distance, but never truly fall in love with the film because it feels as if it should display just as much contempt for its villainous protagonist as he does for the rest of the world. Whether or not his perspective is the symptom of a chemical imbalance, the lack of empathy in Michael’s worldview makes him out to be an elitist monster who’s far more difficult to resonate with than Fletcher Munson’s more recognizably common suburban doldrums. Schizopolis is willing to examine its protagonist’s close-minded selfishness in its third act reversal of perspective that replays scenes through Mrs. Munson’s POV, while Anomalisa just dismisses Michael’s cruel boredom as “psychological problems,” as if they’re something universally experienced. The most perspective we get from Jennifer Jason Leigh as Michael’s titular love interest is a sweetly pathetic rendition of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” which is played more for pity than it is for empathy.

As much as I prefer the deranged silliness of Schizopolis to Anomalisa‘s bitter people-watching, Michael’s climactic speech about customer service optimization does devolve nicely into a kind of dual mission statement for both films. He asks himself (and his audience) “What does it mean to be human? What is it to ache? What is it to be alive?” in existential desperation, only to answer those questions with frantic repetitions of “I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.” These films approach that crisis and the oppressive mundanity of modern life from entirely different perspectives. Schizopolis searches for meaning in interpersonal relationships, finding its frustration with the ineffectiveness of language at truly connecting two human souls in a punishingly tedious world that increasingly doesn’t make sense. Anomalisa, by contrast, despairs at the punishing tedium of other people, who are just as uninteresting & personality-free as hotel room furniture. No matter which perspective you find more honest or worthwhile, it’s eerie how much these visually crude doppelgänger narratives overlap in form. Their supernatural romance dramas are rooted in two incomparable philosophies, yet they’re both staged in a common, tedious modern world setting with intentionally limiting means of expression.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, the irreverently cerebral Steven Soderbergh comedy Schizopolis, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet