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Oh, those evil doppelgängers, and their wonderful place in horror lore. See: Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Twin Peaks, The Thing—and now Jordan Peele’s extremely creepy Get Out follow-up, Us.

I ask you: What could be creepier than your double trying to slash your neck? Peele knows that it’s the ultimate nightmare—and Us plays upon it with chilling glee.

The film starts with a quote about America having many miles of tunnels underneath its surface; there’s then a quick flashback shot of a videotape of 1984 sci-fi film C.H.U.D. next to a VCR. A TV plays an advertisement for Hands Across America, and you already have all sorts of subtext before anything even really happens.

With a series in which a young girl (Madison Curry) in the same 1980s flashback drifts away from her father at a beach amusement park and finds herself in a darkened hall of mirrors, Peele immediately makes it clear that he’s not playing around with this movie: Prepared to be scared, disturbed and uncomfortable in a good way.

The film then jumps to the present day, where Adelaide and Gabe (Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke) are taking their children, Zora and Jason (Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex), to the beach. It’s the same beach we saw in the flashback—and much to her chagrin, Adelaide was that young girl who ventured into that hall of mirrors. She’s not happy about revisiting the Santa Cruz pier, but the husband and kids really want to, so she takes one for the team.

The family excursion quickly becomes the worst vacation ever, as another family shows up, at night, standing in their driveway. A quick examination of the intruders reveals what the commercials for this movie have already told you: The family in the driveway is a mirror image of the stunned family inside the house. However, they aren’t coming over to borrow the lawn mower. They intend to kill everybody.

Once again, this vacation sucks.

Us has a larger scope than I was expecting; it qualifies as one of the better apocalypse movies I’ve ever seen. There’s no question that writer-director Peele has been gobbling up zombie, slasher and isolation movies his entire life, and their influences play a significant part in his vision. The movie is a mind-bender, but it’s also an efficient, bare-knuckle horror-thriller. In short, it’s the whole package as far as horror movies go.

Nyong’o, whose doppelgänger’s name is Red, gets a chance to play two meaty roles here—and she’s all over them. While Adelaide is a strong-willed mom for whom we can’t help but cheer, Red is a croaky monster (the only doppelganger that speaks) who comes with an unexpected level of pathetic sadness. She reveals plenty about why she and her evil-twin pals are doing what they do.

Peele fans know that the man—on top of being able to scare the piss out of you—can make you laugh as well. Us is often as funny as it is scary. Duke is a crack-up as the dad who can’t quite get it right while he’s trying to protect his family. In a masterstroke of casting, Tim Heidecker of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! scores as Gabe’s smug friend. He’s the wiseass husband of Kitty (Elisabeth Moss). Moss does things in this movie that will always qualify as some of her best work.

When asked who they are, Red the doppelgänger leader replies: “We are Americans.” Us might be scary and funny, but it is also an unforgiving condemnation of American missteps, past and present. The movie is a lot of fun, but it’s also heavy.

Peele has a revamp of The Twilight Zone coming to CBS All Access soon, and Us plays like a nice primer for more twisty mischief to come. As for his movies, Peele is on one hell of a roll.

Us is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Selecting Ryan Coogler to helm Black Panther is a major triumph: His entry into the Marvel universe is a majestic, full-bodied, exhilarating treatment of the African-king title character (Chadwick Boseman) with the crazy-cool suit. Marvel has yet another big success with a grand future.

Coogler has three feature films to his credit now—one masterpiece (Fruitvale Station) and two very good movies (Black Panther and Creed). He’s officially one of the best directors currently calling the shots. This is also his third collaboration with actor Michael B. Jordan, who brings a fleshed-out, complicated villain to the screen in Erik Killmonger. Man, you need to be bad with that last name.

The pre-opening-credit scenes involves Black Panther’s dad and predecessor having a confrontation in 1992, in Oakland, Calif. A major event takes place as some kids playing basketball look on. It turns out to be one of the more brilliant and heart-wrenching setups for a Marvel-movie character yet.

The action cuts to present day, where Black Panther/T’Challa is dealing with the death of his father due to an event that took place in Captain America: Civil War. (The producers and screenwriters linked these films together very well.) He’s set to become king, but must pass through a ritual with some risk involved. He overcomes the obstacles, gets his throne and prepares for his rule. However, his kingdom doesn’t get a moment to breathe before trouble ensues.

Elsewhere, Killmonger has come across an ancient weapon forged in Wakanda (the Black Panther’s homeland), made from vibranium, a precious resource that fuels much of Wakanda’s advanced technology, including the Black Panther suits. With the help of Wakanda enemy Klaue (Andy Serkis, acting with his real face as opposed to a motion capture suit), Killmonger obtains the weapon, threatening world stability.

The story is told with a stunning level of social relevance for a superhero film, especially when it comes to Killmonger’s motives. He’s not just some guy looking to enrich himself for selfish purposes; he’s got some big reasons for having gone bad, and they make him a far more sympathetic character than, say, Loki from Thor.

As good as Boseman is, and he’s really good, Black Panther is a big success thanks very much to the cast around him. Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o plays the possible love interest in Nakia, getting her finest post-Oscar role yet. The Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira makes a confident graduation to big-screen action hero, while Letitia Wright gets a lot of laughs as T’Challa’s mischievous and extremely smart sister, Shuri.

There are so many great performers in this movie that there isn’t enough room here to give them all praise, but here are a few more: Angela Bassett, Martin Freeman, Forest Whitaker, Winston Duke, Daniel Kaluuya and Sterling K. Brown all play formidable roles. It’s early in the year, but this will surely stand as one of 2018’s best ensemble casts.

Coogler proves he can handle a big-action blockbuster. His action scenes mostly snap with precise energy and efficiency, but some of them are a bit jumbled and hard to follow due to low light or ill-advised camera angles. I saw the film in IMAX 2-D, so perhaps some of what I was seeing played better in 3-D. There was nothing too sloppy, but some moments were not as tight as the rest of the film.

Black Panther is a superhero saga rich with culture and gravitas, and yet it does not skimp on the good humor and action thrills we’ve come to expect from Marvel. DC’s recent offerings (Justice League, Suicide Squad) make everyone involved with them look like goofballs in comparison (with Wonder Woman being the lone recent exception). Black Panther and Marvel show us that big-screen superhero entertainment can be about much more than suits and explosions.

Black Panther is playing at theaters across the valley, in a variety of formats.

Published in Reviews