The Rhythm Section

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The Rhythm Section really caught my eye with some nice Steadicam moves and jaw dropping landscape shots thanks to the handy cinematography work of Sean Bobbitt. This film has great scope as we travel along Stephanie’s trail of violence throughout the world, including a unique car chase in Tangier. I also enjoyed the shot selection and style of director Reed Morano. And though The Rhythm Section hit many clichés it was still a mostly enjoyable ride due to the serious talent of one Blake Lively. For a genre crime film this is a powerful performance. It starts out intense and it ends that way — and don’t you forget it.

The film has many merits. Jude Law convincingly plays a former British spy forced to turn into trainer of lethal force. Aside Warning — Why is it the training scenes in films are always more compelling then the following events?…Full Metal Jacket, Rocky, etc. — Regardless, the drama is carried deftly by Lively and Morano. This film was extremely human for one with several car bombs. That’s a nod to novelist Mark Burnell, who created a compelling character that has to learn difficult lessons about vengeance. The Rhythm Section doesn’t have the sustained visceral energy of some other kick-ass woman films like Besson’s Anna or Lucy but it still carries you along on other stylistic and emotional levels. It certainly easily passed the Tuesday 5 dollar bar at our local cinema.

Brittany Runs a Marathon

Brittany Runs a Marathon focuses on a woman who has come to the realization that she isn’t happy with where she has found herself in life. Starting off at a posh ad agency in The City, Brittany had high hopes for herself and her career.  But, alas, we pick up the story and she is a 197-pound party girl with an iffy job and an iffier circle of friends.  During a visit to her local clinic to score some recreational prescription meds, her doctor gives her an earful about her sorry state of health. Brittany decides she needs to do something, and that something is to start running.

We’ve seen versions of this movie before, of course, but this one has both some originality and plenty of audacity. L&D particularly liked Jillian Bell in the title role, and neither of us for a second believed that she was acting the part because she owned the part.  We agreed that her performance was both seamless and brilliant, even if we felt like scolding her throughout the film. I thought the rest of the characters were extremely well cast, even if I thought the story arcs were either incomplete or bungled for every single character aside from the title character. Even so, the film had some truly enjoyable personalities, especially Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar), who we loved, and Gretchen (Alice J), who we didn’t.

Thematically the movie is a not terribly subtle homage to the original Rocky film, with a loser in the title role who has an opportunity to transform herself into someone she’d rather be.  Brittany does a really good job of emphasizing that the transformation is both physical, virtually anyone can get their body in better shape (especially people who currently spend an inordinate amount of time boozing and smoking and doing drugs), as well as mental.  The emphasis on the difficulty in changing her own mentality about her identity is well done.  Indeed, this is expressed quite profoundly in a number of spots, including a remarkable scene where her super mean roommate tells her to keep her old clothes, because even if Brittany manages to keep the weight off, she’ll always be the “fat girl.”  Ouch.   It isn’t until Brittany realizes that it is about process and not outcomes that the transformation is complete.

Unlike Rocky, which dispenses of the character’s bitterness early on in the film, Brittany spends a good deal of time holding on to her anger and envy and insecurities, and dishes out her share of punishment throughout the film.  Indeed, my major objections to the film are not that the supporting characters’ are not sufficiently developed or that their story arcs are not resolved in a convincing fashion (they aren’t and they aren’t).  My beef is that the movie is extremely short on reconciliation.  Why do these folks continue to embrace her unconditionally?  She isn’t that funny.

Overall, we are enthusiastic about this one for a great leading role, some great supporting characters, and an enjoyable and thought-provoking storyline. In a year where we haven’t loved a lot of films, this one could creep onto our year-end list perhaps. See it before it’s gone, or catch it on Amazon Prime on the rebound.

 

 

Ready or Not and Midsommar

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L&D opted to watch the Bears flame out against the Packers this past Thursday night, hence skipping the week’s somewhat slim cinematic offerings.  But that doesn’t mean we haven’t been out and about.  Indeed, over the past couple weeks we managed to see a couple of movies that we were initially reluctant to see, movies that were seemingly as different as night and day…

On the night side we saw Ready or Not, and if you’ve seen the trailer for this one, you pretty much know the gist of how it plays out. Grace (Samara Weaving) is a beautiful young family-less woman who is slated to marry into an eccentric family, heirs to a board game fortune.  As part of the spousal initiation, she must draw a card from the family heirloom box that selects a game to play with the family, something mundane like checkers or Jenga. But once every generation or so, the game is hide-and-seek, the kind where the incumbents have until dawn to track down the spouse and sacrifice him/her to the cause, with the cause being another generation of familial fortune.  So, by definition this one is mostly an overnight affair, mostly played out in the confines of a spooky old house, with mostly comedic-style violence, and an ending that is mostly never quite in doubt.

You have to give the filmmakers some credit here:  they gave away the broad strokes of the plot from wire-to-wire up front and they were still able to make thing reasonably compelling. That’s a pretty good trick, isn’t it?  I went in with low expectations and this one soared over the $5 bar.

 

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That brings us to the day side, where L&D finally got brave enough to take in Midsommar (Ari Aster’s extended director’s cut, no less), where the sun shines deep into the northern Swedish night, and the idiosyncrasies of IKEAesque paganism are out in the open for all to see, at least in principle.

The movie doesn’t start off that way, however, instead setting us up stateside in the dark, dark snowy days of winter, where we see snapshots of the fractured relationship between Dani (Florence Pugh) and her idiot boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor).  The opening salvo of a murder-suicide in Dani’s family is troubling enough that Christian decides not to pull the trigger on the breakup, and instead somehow bungles his way into inviting her to tag along with him and his grad student anthro buddies for the Midsommar festival hosted by the commune of his buddy, Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren).

So that gets us to Sweden, and after a few Shining-esque overheads, director Aster literally turns the world upside-down on us as the kids make their way into the sun-drenched village of Harga; the movie is not light on symbolism. I’m guessing an aggressive Google search would turn up a few hours of reading of the myriad meanings of the white frocks, the various shapes, and the character archetypes trotted out — the intellectual, the opportunist, the skeptic, and, of course, “the fool” (remarkably similar to the anthro buddies I had in college, I might add).

On top of the over-the-top symbolism, the movie isn’t terribly shy about foreshadowing, either.  In good Chekov fashion, if you see a picture on the wall of a woman trimming her nether regions and baking the clippings into a cake in the first act, expect to be pulling that hair out of your teeth before things wrap up, okay?

Between the visuals and the music and the director’s patience with scenes and the hyper-deliberate pace of the plot-lines, the movie does a spectacular job of inducing dread. It wasn’t terribly scary scary, but it was unnerving and more disturbing than your average bear.  The violence has a visceral quality about it that doesn’t show up in most comedic or antiseptic violence that characterizes much of what comes through the theater these days.  It’s a provocative movie.  Indeed, I am still thinking about the face plant and the “blood eagle” all these days later.

Also way over the $5 bar.  L&D approve of this extended message.

 

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Although these two films are cut from different cloth, they each explore a central question of the day:  how insular groups treat outsiders (with the protagonist(s) being the outsiders in both cases).  Where you want to take this metaphor  — capitalist v. collectivist societies, the upcoming U.S. presidential election — is up to you.

The Ready or Not clan absorbs outsiders subject to a few caveats.  First, these outsiders are selected by a member of the family (i.e., prospective spouses).   Second, the new prospective member must play this game business, which tacitly makes entrance to the family renouncing any previous allegiances. The bride is an orphan and any of her family or friends that were around for the wedding were certainly not around for the wedding night (This is almost certainly done for expositional simplicity, but a reasonable person can connect a few dots).  Then the million billion dollar question is whether the family actually has to adhere to the commitments of its forefathers or not — what are the consequences of reneging on a deal from the past?  This question is somewhat latent through most of the movie, but shows up spectacularly down the stretch.

Here is the thesis of the movie:  the really wealthy really are mostly indifferent toward you. They are ruthless, possibly incompetent, certainly deluded, and they get to make most (but not all) of the rules up as they go along.  If you’ve been watching HBO’s brilliant Succession, this theme should resonate with you.  They don’t necessarily have much in common with one another, other than a mercenary intensity in maintaining their lives in the lap of luxury.  At least you know where they stand, right?

Although the community in Midsommar is also pretty selective about who gets to come in, the community here is a true socialist paradise.  They eat together, sleep together, pray together, and do a lot of other things together that you might not immediately think of as community activities. That’s true at least in terms of what is out in the open and bathed in the sunshine.  Who knows what’s going behind closed doors?  Although there is a titular head who is ostensibly in charge, it is pretty clear that that’s not who is actually in charge.  Of course, the community rules are the community rules, but there is more than a hint that these rules are subject to selective interpretation of the higher ups. As a result, the treatment of outsiders is pretty much on a case-by-case basis and by the end here you can probably make the case that there wasn’t much of a doubt about how this one was going to play out.  

Although the movie is ostensibly about a break up, it is much better as a meditation on the pursuit of the collective good, whatever that happens to be.  Pro tip: be careful when someone tells you that your sacrifice for the cause is going to be painless.

Ultimately, I would argue that each of these films explores how we think about and how we treat those outside of our immediate circles, however defined.  More pointedly, each explores the danger and limits of extremism (are there limits of extremism?), whether the source is a self-interested patriarchy or the socialist matriarchy.  The upshot is that maybe night and day have more in common than we are willing to admit.  And, it is possibly instructive to think about which of these worlds is more resilient and durable.

Or maybe that’s just how it is in the movies.

Good Boys

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It’s late summer, the Valley’s fried chicken madness is now at a full boil, and the movies seem to be coming fast and furious, including the ninth installment of the Fast and Furious franchise (which evidently still has a lot to say).

Well, we didn’t see that, but instead bit the bullet and spent our late Tuesday evening watching sixth graders drop F bombs. 

Yes, we saw Good Boys.

As advertised, Good Boys is Superbad light, with the boys being a little younger and the kids’ objective somewhat less sensationally objectionable than in its muse film. The script is pretty high quality and the acting is pretty solid for what it is, though the pacing seemed off to me.  It is pretty funny despite many of the marquee jokes being featured in the trailers, and we did laugh out loud a lot, possibly more than the target audience laughed. Indeed, I think we laughed at a lot of stuff that we weren’t necessarily supposed to laugh at.

A very large portion of the humor involves the disconnect between what we believe sixth graders know and what an over 17 audience knows, particularly pertaining to alcohol, recreational drugs, sex, and adult sex products. Oh, and navigating the suburbs (how exactly should one cross an interstate?). The movie is remarkably restrained in its expression of vulgarity, with the simple appearance of a taboo item enough to elicit laughter in most cases. It’s pretty well done.

This all adds up handsomely for the backers:  the theater was packed, there isn’t a single A-list actor in the movie, and the production budget must have been trivial (though it had considerable promotion campaign). By my calculations, this movie is making the big big money and what they will do with the big big money is probably make more films like this, with the writing quality being swapped out for more explicit verbal and visual content.  I’d put $5 on that.

Speaking of $5, this one is way over that bar with the caveats that you like your humor blue and aren’t offended by kids swearing like actual kids swear when you aren’t around. Clearing the bar is especially easy given Marcus is offering a free popcorn and drink to anyone who flashes this coupon between now and September 2.  We arrived at the theater and our special guest, Bb, was peacocking with his free bounty.

The verdict: it’s not half Superbad.

And that’s pretty good.

Crawl

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You know it’s the soft-spot of the summer when the king of squirm himself texts to suggest that we head off to see a scary movie.  Such was the case this past bargain Tuesday, with L&D finding ourselves in the upper-deck of a packed house for the late showing of Crawl, this summer’s addition to the creepy action fare genre.

And it’s not too bad!

The movie takes us to Florida, two hours from Gainsville by car, we’re told, where a hurricane is depositing enough water to flood the place out.  Without giving too much away, let’s just say there are some biggun gators on the loose.  Who knew?  How they terrorize a college student and her hapless father (among others) is the subject of the movie.

The filmmakers definitely did a lot with a little here. I liked the student (Kaya Scodelario) a lot better than I liked the dad (Barry Pepper), though clearly both have some acting chops.  The script was pretty tight and self-contained, somewhat logical as far as it goes, not as annoying as it might have been, and plenty creepy.  It definitely taxed the limits of the L&D Jump-o-Meter that we bring along for such occasions, though it didn’t seem to phase the younger generation seated amongst us.

I think the kids enjoyed it though. If I recall correctly, we even shared some laughs. I particularly liked the ever-so-brief billboard advertising a giant alligator zoo, barely noticeable if you aren’t looking for it, as the main character drove through the storm. Solid all around.

If you are up for some creepy crawlies, check out Crawl.  But I think I will pass on the invitation to join you.  Once is enough for me, thank you very much.

Spiderman: Far From Home

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We ventured out for a special holiday week Tuesday opening of Spiderman: Far From Home, playing to a pretty crowded house for the late show.  This is the first major Marvel Comics Universe (MCU) release since Avengers: Endgame, and this fits squarely into the universe with constant reminders to what has come before.  I’m not saying that’s a good thing.

The movie retains a healthy reliance on Peter Parker’s high school experience, and the writers continue to seem to know their way around the teenager mentality.  After the obligatory opening action scene, we move into a pretty expansive exploration of the class trip to Europe with Peter, MJ, and Flash, along with major roles for Brad and Betty this time around.  Tom Holland and Zendaya and the supporting cast continue to impress in these roles.

Even so, this particular incarnation of the Spiderman arc is decidedly different than anything I’ve seen before. Peter is no longer the poor kid, as evidently he has the resources to get on a plane and jump the pond. Tony Stark (still Robert Downey, Jr.) seems to have stepped in for his Uncle Ben as the father figure, and now Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) actually knows Peter’s secret identity, too (!).

Because this is the MCU thing, we also get a very healthy dose of Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, which is generally a good thing, but it is also instructive as to the gets at this Spidey as the heir apparent to Iron Man as the leader of the Avengers.  Jake Gyllenhaal also shows up as the somewhat “mysterious” Quentin Beck, and he plays a rather pronounced role as the would-be hero.  So the movie has more than its fair share of star power.

The verdict: If you like Spiderman or you generally like the MCU (or both), you will likely enjoy what this has to offer. I’m guessing that’s enough folks to make this one the smash hit that it’s become. My kids both saw it on Tuesday and my son was especially excited about the “big twist.”   It’s playing in Peoria.

As for me, I mostly enjoyed it, but thought that it was a decided step down from 2017’s excellent Homecoming. And it would certainly not crack the top three if L&D were ever to get around to publishing our Best Spiderman Movie Rankings (available upon request). Word has it that L might unleash a surprise  Into the Spiderverse review on us.

Anna

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Luc Besson’s Anna stars supermodel actress Sasha Luss as the achingly — in the sense that she produces a lot of physical pain for anyone she who gets on her wrong side — beautiful killer in the titular role. The part is somewhat reminiscent of Charlize Theron’s in the take no prisoners action film Atomic Blonde which recieved a double review from L & D. I was interested in watching Anna knowing it was the work of auteur Writer/Director Luc Besson. He is known for one of my favorite films, Leon: The Professional, which was Natalie Portman’s first film and had a great performance by Jean Reno. You also know his work with The Fifth Element and another one of my favorites, Lucy, starring Scarlett Johansson. Lucy is another style first, kick-ass woman in a take no prisoners role. Besson knows how to visually translate style and action from his screenplays.

I’m a fan of unmotivated elements of style in the films I make and watch. Why did the camera move that way? Well, it just felt right. Or, where did that pink light come from? Well, that pink light came from exactly where you think the music in this film came from. It’s not like there is a musician actively scoring your life. Yet music that isn’t actually in the physical reality of a scene (aka non-diegetic sound) is given a free pass in our movie viewing. It’s a little tougher to get away with unmotivated, unnaturalistic elements in terms of lighting, camera movement and editing but it’s something that I appreciate and an audience will get behind or “suspend their disbelief” if it is done well. And to answer the question, the music and lighting all come from the same place, the imagination of the Director. 

Interestingly, most Directors work in obscurity. For example, can you tell me who directed Saturday Night Fever, War Games and Blue Thunder? The answer is John Badham. You’d think that this would be common instead of trivial knowledge. To be known as a Director, it helps to have a distinct style, whether you work within a movement or blaze your own trail. And even then to say something is _________ esque means that you weren’t taken seriously at some point. But also that you stuck to what you thought was the most honest version of storytelling for you — your distinct style. Sometimes films that are made by particular directors don’t have their stamp. Perhaps it was a studio film where they didn’t have control. But in this case Anna is one hundred percent Bessonesque from the John Wick meets Hardcore Henry throwdown in the restaurant to the really beautiful plan sequence (aka oner) in the bedroom closet, which reminded me of the confessional scene in Coppola’s masterpiece, The Conversation. If you have never seen The Conversation on DVD with the audio commentary by sound editor/ designer Walter Murch on, do yourself a cinematic favor and check it out. There are other nods to The Conversaton in Anna as well.

Anna contains a lot of the scenes and elements which we have come to expect from the recent heroine driven international spy genre: the car chase in little European streets, the lesbian love affair, the plain ol’ just ass-kicking of entitled / douchey / know it all men —  and it’s all pretty satisfying stuff. It is also executed with a ton of silky yet heart pumping style. I’m already looking forward to Besson’s next offering.

Men In Black: International

Men in Black: International is chock-full of star power:  Tessa Thompson, Chris Hemsworth, Liam Neeson, Emma Thompson, and a special guest appearance of Kumail Nanjiani.   It is also chock-full of special effects and weird aliens and the like.  What it is not chock-full of is a decent story, suspense, a good villain, or consistent laughs.  It is mostly harmless summer fun, like a snow cone.   Or diet lemonade.

L&D were split on this one, with L seeming to enjoy himself, while D was mostly bored and annoyed.  Nanjiani is certainly mostly solid and often very funny, and is what I would rate as the best part of the movie had it not been for Chris Hemsworth strutting around in pink chinos.

But, ultimately, we have a dull movie.

I will chalk this up to (at least) two major shortcomings.   First, there is no straight man.   MiB worked so spectacularly because Tommy Lee Jones and the staid MiB organization served as a foil to Will Smith’s overall freshness. Ironically, the film took some pains to make Tessa Thompson into the straight man, even though the entire ad campaign around the movie suggested otherwise.   What a mess.   I walked out of International recanting some of the funnier MiB scenes to L that I still remember all these years later; a day out, I’m not sure I remember what was funny about this recent offering.

Second, who is the villain here, anyway?  There are a number of candidates, one becomes obvious, the audience isn’t surprised and doesn’t care.   It concludes with some  Drama-Free Action.

At one point, I was really reminded of the soft spots in the Star Wars movies — lots of aliens and crazy background serving as stand-ins for interesting characters and a compelling plot.   Given the amount of money thrown at this movie, the payoff is abysmal.

We should have seen this coming.   We did see this coming.    The Taco Bell is closed until further notice.

Taco Bell locations were mentioned several times by readers as having long waits in the drive-thrus at various times, and their inside dining rooms were occasionally closed while the drive-thrus were open. 

A call to Pacific Bells, the Taco Bell franchise owner in this area, was not returned.  

A check on the Taco Bell on Appleton’s east side, which was identified by readers as having sporadic issues, showed it was currently open and staffed. But it had reduced hours, now closing at 8 p.m. instead of the advertised 2 a.m.

TBI don’t lie.

Shaft

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I think the Taco Bell by the movie theater has finally closed down. Maybe there aren’t enough people to work there anymore? — We are winning, America! — And so it was prophesied that L & D sat in an essentially empty and quite large multiplex theater to see Samuel L. Jackson star in Shaft. The film started off on shaky ground with some intensely stiff acting and dialogue. But luckily for everyone involved it loosened up once Mr. Jackson arrived on scene. 

If you’ve ever watched any Blaxploitation films, say on the Bounce network, (which I get on TV airwaves here in Northeastern Wisconsin — though if that’s not enough for you, Bounce owns Brown Sugar, a 1970’s era Blaxploitation on demand service) there’s one common denominator, namely low production value. Bad, I mean bad! lighting, awkward, I mean distractingly awkward! editing and poor, piss poor! composition people. Is there a reason for this? I’m sure there is. The reason has to do with low budgets. Those days are gone, as the new Shaft has the production value of a James Bond film. The lighting, camera movement, wardrobe, art direction and sound are of the highest caliber. The film has enough confidence in itself to make light of the genre. For example, when Shaft is about to enter a shady nightclub, there is a blatant smoke machine hidden behind a trash can spewing way too much non-motivated smoke. It’s confusing at first until you get the joke. Then, in a most excellent scene, Shaft is in the apartment hallway of his ex-wife. He is at her door, pleading to be let in, when he is interrupted by a neighbor who gives him the stink eye. Suddenly the groovy music winds down like someone pulled the plug on the Rev. Al Green 33 that was spinning on your record player. As soon as the neighbor gets a look at Shaft’s gun, he is terrified and slams his door — the song cranks up to speed again. It’s a great breaking the fourth wall moment. 

I would be remiss in writing about Shaft without mentioning the great African-American writer of hardboiled novels and social narratives, Mr. Chester Himes. If you’ve never heard of Chester Himes, click on that link already. He delighted many readers and inspired many writers and filmmakers with his series of nine Harlem Detective novels. It’s safe to say what Raymond Chandler is to Hollywood, Chester Himes is to Harlem. And with this in mind, I really enjoyed Shaft. I have no idea if I was laughing at the appropriate places but I was definitely laughing. Even D, who was not impressed with the wobbly opening, started laughing. There is just something about Samuel L. Jackson, he really is like a funky Mr. Miyagi. After all, he has already portrayed a Jedi Master. Also, in one scene he reminds us that he is tired of the Laurence Fishburne comparisons! 

At its core, Shaft is a generation-gap-father-son film. It at least acknowledges that times have changed, even if it sticks to stereotypes. However, the stereotypes are with tongue firmly planted in cheek and with the good intention of the audience having a little fun. Of course here, the good guys win through violence, the Dad teaches the kid how to be a proper manly man and the women in the film either step aside, need to be rescued or forgive the unforgivable — or at least the truly shitty. It’s still a Blaxsploitaion genre movie but Shaft does have his heart in the right place even if sometimes his actions and words betray him. His character flaws and redeeming values are identical to Himes’ hardboiled heroes.

Yeah, it’s a family movie if your family eats expletives for breakfast, doesn’t mind people getting shot up with AK-47s and finds glitter all over a bare chest quite amusing. I’m not going to tell you if I found it quite amusing. I’m also not going to tell you where the glitter was on Shaft. In the final analysis, Shaft checked all the kick up your feet and enjoy a summertime movie for 6 bucks boxes but it wasn’t a great movie and certainly something you could enjoy in your La-Z-Boy recliner or loveseat at home. Also, motherfucker. A lot.

Us

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Us is a bad LSD trip the inner mind of Jordan Peele is having that we, the audience, communally share.  As a former Banana Slug, I can attest to the utter appropriateness of Santa Cruz as the location. It’s a proudly weird place, a vortex of time and space, a living breathing acid test in motion. The film draws inspiration from and pays homage to some pretty varied sources, most notably Dante’s Inferno (but also Dante’s Purgatorio), Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, the Bible, The Shining, The Lost Boys, Stranger ThingsHot Tub Time Machine, Zombieland, Thriller, Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, Jaws, Black Flag, Bernard Herrmann’s iconic scores for Alfred Hitchcock, Childish Gambino’s This is America music video etc. etc. etc. And it’s all tastefully and often humorously done. 

Our clerk at the concession stand did an amazingly good job summing up the movie, even though his tag said his favorite film was La La Land. His 1 minute critique was concise, precise and didn’t include any spoilers. He said it was not a horror film but more of a slasher, suspense film that was very entertaining and had a great ending. We replied — Yes, we would like butter. We would always like butter.

The density of the film in terms of references and symbols made D and I both come to the conclusion that we could watch this film many more times and still not be able to get everything Jordan Peele was trying to express. And at least for me, that’s okay. Us made my heart beat fast for its entire 2 hour and 1 minute run time. When I was using the restroom after the film, absolutely everything was freaking me out. The sound of the paper dispenser, the feel of the water faucet…my senses were certainly heightened in a way I hadn’t felt since Besson’s Lucy had me freaking out, sweating and staring at all the surveillance cameras on the traffic lights in L.A. 

In the sense that Us has a profound ability to move you, Us wins. The plot is most certainly flawed, the density of references and meanings may turn off some people but ultimately, it is a thought provoking allegory and entertaining film. If some gore, violence and blood don’t turn you off, I’m sure you will heartily enjoy Us. In Slug parlance…doood, the flick is a total trip.