The stop-motion animation wizards at Laika have made some of the most charming and visually impressive movies of the last few years, including The Box Trolls, Kubo and the Two Strings, and ParaNorman. They’ve built up enough trust that I will see anything that they attach their name to. Missing Link is probably their least successful big screen effort yet, though that still means it’s only perfectly fine rather than great-to-amazing. It’s a heartfelt buddy comedy about a Bigfoot creature (voiced by Zach Galfianakis) that seeks out mentorship from a dashing adventurer (Hugh Jackman). It’s a sweet story but not fully emotionally engaging because the characters are fairly simplistic. There isn’t a lot of depth here and, surprisingly, more crass jokes aimed at a younger audience than their earlier output. From a visual standpoint, it’s beautiful with vibrant colors and fluid animation that has become indistinguishable from CGI nowadays. The action set pieces, usually appearing at a regular clip with each new location change, are fun and have their clever moments, like a capsizing ship that reminded me of the spinning Inception hallway. It’s an amusing, lower tier animated movie for Laika, but I’m worried that there might not be more of these movies the way they’re going at the box-office. Laika was treading financial water with excellent movies, and anything “less than” seems like it could possibly tip the independent animation production company over for good. Missing Link is a cute, mostly harmless, mostly entertaining movie that just doesn’t have the same ambitions and level of execution that previous Laika films have had. With that being said, it’s still worth a watch on the big screen for any animation aficionado.
Nate’s Grade: B
I am struggling to come up with something of substance to say about The Aftermath, an adequate drama with decent performances, handsome production design, and a boring love triangle. It’s set in the aftermath of World War Two Germany in the Allied-occupied stretch. Jason Clarke plays a British officer stationed in another man’s home, a wealthy German local (Alexander Skarsgard) who lost his wife in the war. Clarke’s wife (Keira Knightley) is anxious to go home, still processing her grief from losing her child during the war and her relationship with her distant husband seems irreparable. It’s only a matter of time before Knightley and Skarsgard find comfort in one another, and they do, almost absurdly quickly. The more interesting story is Clarke trying to keep a fragile peace in the ruins of bombed-out Germany while Nazi sympathetic elements conspire to form an insurgency against the remaining officers. Now that’s a movie I would watch. That’s a way more intriguing storyline, and one I’m sure chapter after chapter was filled with sprawling, conspiratorial detail in the novel by Rhidian Brook. Alas, we’re stuck with a pretty drab love affair between two pretty people. I didn’t feel any passion between them; it felt like they were acting by-the-numbers, and ultimately maybe that was what the director had in mind all along. I found my mind drifting away for long interludes, thinking about other movies, thinking about watching other historical dramas. The acting is pretty good all around. Knightley has a standout scene where she breaks down and reveals the full extent of her maternal grief and what it has done to her marriage. The Aftermath will be readily forgotten in its own aftermath, and I don’t think too many viewers will mourn.
Nate’s Grade: C
S. Craig Zahler is the real deal when it comes to budding genre auteurs. He’s been writing in Hollywood for some time and after numerous un-produced scripts he finally decided to take matters into his own hands. In 2015, he wrote and directed the terrific and terrifically violent western Bone Tomahawk, and then in 2017 he tried his hand at another genre movie, the brutal prison drama, Brawl in Cell Block 99. Now Zahler has hopped to another genre, the more familiar cops-and-robbers crime thriller territory, Dragged Across Concrete. I’ll watch anything that Zahler decides is worthy of his precious time, and I was unprepared for how engaging, exciting, and uncomfortable the movie made me. It’s still early but I already feel confident this is destined as one of my favorite films of 2019.
One bank robbery. Many different sides fighting for the score. Henry Johns (Tory Kittles) is an ex-con fresh for prison and attached to a crew thanks to a childhood friend, Biscuit (Michael Jai White). Brett Ridgeman (Mel Gibson) is a police detective who has been in the same position for nearly 30 years. His wife has MS and his daughter is being assaulted in their urban neighborhood. His partner, Anthony Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn), is struggling to work up the nerve to propose to his girlfriend and he sees his partner slipping. Both of them are on suspension after a video of them beating a handcuffed suspect appears online. Then there are the mysterious, masked men (labeled as Grey Gloves and Black Gloves) working alongside Vogelmann (Thomas Kretschmann) who hire Henry John and Biscuit to be their getaway drivers. This culminates with a bank robbery that places every character in greater jeopardy as things spin out of control.
What separates Zahler from the pack is simply the magnificent manner he can write scenes, building and building, unlocked intriguing character details, building to startling conclusions or everyday relatability given a new, brash context. It’s a screenwriting edict that every scene should in essence be its own story, having a beginning, middle, and end, a drive, and if possible a reversal to something unexpected, shedding further examination onto a problem, person, or setting. I was greatly enjoying just watching the various characters talk in their understated, hard-boiled, often funny conversations, which don’t feel too self-consciously stylized. It’s just damn good writing. Even when they’re doing bad things, or mistakes that cost them greatly, Zahler has his characters respond like people and not hip, soulless movie cartoons. There’s a reason Concrete is two and a half hours long and that’s because Zahler really lets his scenes breathe at their own pace, which can be too languid if it wasn’t for how exquisitely written they are, particularly with character details. Each scene sheds a startling non-judgmental spotlight on a different character, some criminal, some corrupt, most struggling to keep their heads above water and provide for family, and you feel the narrative expanding, growing, transforming, and providing the needed space to make these people feel real.
Each one of these scenes could be a marvelous short film upon themselves, and sometimes it feels that way with the skipping perspectives. What happens to Jennifer Carpenter’s character, a woman beset with anxiety about returning to work after maternity leave, is its own wonderful movie that provides a glimpse into a life and in only five minutes’ time. Her reluctance to go back to work, her need to be with her child, the simple, heartfelt plea with a child’s sock. It all works in impressive tandem to make this person feel authentic. The same with an exchange between two lifelong friends about a birthday cake and naming dinosaurs, reaching back to ease the current tension. It’s insight rarely afforded to characters in a standard heist movie. The actors are all given these artistic arias to work with, and the extra attention to detail brings a depth of dimension that makes them feel fully realized. Zahler has captured recognizable, complicated human beings and placed them in a pulpy genre movie. This is the sort of A-level elevation of B-movie material that is usually the purview of Quentin Tarantino.
Because of my general awe with the characterization, Zahler had the added benefit of making the rising dread feel powerfully unnerving. It’s major a slow burn of a movie, setting up the various players that will be directly or indirectly involved with the robbery, and that robbery doesn’t even hit until well after an hour into the film. Because of that patience, or self-indulgence some will decry, the movie fleshes out all the participants and their various motivations so that the audience feels degrees of sympathy for many people on different sides of the equation. This leads to amazing tension for the last hour. I was tying myself in knots waiting for awful things to happen to characters I found compelling because, frankly, awful things happen easily in Zahler’s movie universe. There is a stash of guns in the glove compartment of a getaway van. The first sequence involves the growing tension of characters placing themselves in a vulnerable position by giving up their weapons. Then, as the scene transforms anew, the guns in that compartment become a reminder of an ironic advantage that only one character knows about, and we wait for their retrieval to escalate the danger of the new scenario. That’s fabulous writing with organic developments. There are several characters at cross-purposes with little reason to trust one another, and so we wait for that looming explosion of violence fed by mistrust and greed. Zahler understands this and that’s why many of the scenes in the last hour follow the writing style, slow burns that hang onto the unease and breathing space. There are several long takes aided by long shots that amplify the gnawing tension, as your eyes scan the screen waiting for the boom.
I’ve read more than a few negative reviews for Dragged Across Concrete and I don’t understand their central criticism, namely that Zahler’s movie is “problematic” because of a supposed conservative, bigoted point of view. I think these critics are conflating a featured viewpoint with an endorsement of that viewpoint. Take for instance the brouhaha that erupted over a 2015 episode of the Hulu comedy series Difficult People where a narcissistic, caustic character makes an inappropriate joke featuring super scion Blue Ivy and vilified R. Kelly. In the context of the show, the character is berated for her off-color joke and suffers social consequences. When the episode aired, people went after the show and producer Amy Poehler and entirely missed the point. The character was not put in a positive light for making this joke. She was shamed. Clearly the show did not endorse her behavior but others could not see through their own misplaced outrage. With Dragged Across Concrete, we are presented with middle-aged police officers with a chip on their shoulder who feel justified in engaging in brutality against a suspect of color. That’s not a good thing. Zahler’s film does not endorse their actions or worldview but allows them space to exist, filling in their experiences, so we have a greater understanding of how their perspectives have been honed and hardened over time. It’s the same empathetic lens given to other people, like the opening where Henry comes home and discovers his mother has been forced to turn to prostitution to fend for herself and Henry’s disabled younger brother. I don’t think Zahler endorses the abusive cops any more than the ruthless masked killers.
I’m keeping things light in this review for the reason that I want you, dear reader, to be surprised by the many twists and turns of Dragged Across Concrete. As the film builds in intensity, the body count rises and the conclusion feels inevitable because of the superb writing that laid a tight foundation to build upon. Even in death, the characters stay true to whom they are, which can often be very not nice people. The acting is great from every player. This movie grabbed me from the beginning and refused to let go and I was genuinely spellbound from Zahler’s storytelling prowess and ability to weave a net of complex, flawed, humane, and fascinating characters into a tragic scenario of violence that left me anxious and exhilarated. When people complain that Hollywood isn’t making thinking-person films for adults, please invite them to the burgeoning oeuvre of Zahler, who is charting a path for himself on his own terms thanks to his instincts and tremendous writing voice. Dragged Across Concrete is a ferocious punch to the gut in the best way possible.
Nate’s Grade: A
It seems like the secret to the success of the DC movie universe is making fun, lower stakes adventures with the characters the public has the least knowledge about. Shazam actually begun as a “Captain Marvel,” and now comes on the heels of the MCU’s Captain Marvel. We follow Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a teenage orphan trying to find his missing mother. He stumbles into a wizard’s realm and is given a special power whereupon he turns into a square-jawed, broad-shouldered superhero (Zachary Levi) by saying “Shazam.” What follows is like a superhero version of Big and it’s goofy, charming, and reminiscent of an 80s Amblin movie, where children’s movies were allowed to be a little creepy and weird. The movie is light, cheerful, and heartfelt with its doling out of family messages to go along with the slapstick and personal growth. It’s very much envisioned from a young boy’s fantasy perspective of being a super-powered adult, where the first things to be done include buying beer, going to a “gentleman’s club,” in between testing out bullet invulnerability and flight. Levi (TV’s Chuck) is excellent at playing an adult version of a kid. I was initially dismissive of his casting but he’s perfect for this part. There’s a satisfying sense of discovery for Shazam and his excitable foster brother (Jack Dylan Grazer) that doesn’t get old. The movie is more concerned with how the superpowers are affecting Billy’s relationships and sense of self than any larger, planet-destroying danger. The film even sets up its villain (Mark Strong) by giving him a decent back-story and opening the movie to explain his crummy family. It’s not a three-dimensional villain by any means but the attention given to make him something more is appreciated. The other foster kids in Billy’s new family are more archetypes but amusing, and their involvement in the final act raises the joy level of the finale. Shazam! is a movie where people are genuinely excited to be superheroes or associated with them, and that gleeful, buoyant revelry is downright infectious.
Nate’s Grade: B+
I already know my computer’s spell check is going to hate this review. In the wake of the box-office bonanza of It, prolific author Stephen King is a hot property once again for studios and everything old is new again. Pet Sematary (yes it’s intentionally misspelled) is a remake of a 1989 that was a hit back in the day. It was never regarded as a good movie but had its campy entertainment, so there was some room for improvement. Early reviews were positive and I raised my hopes for the 2019 edition, but after having seen the finished product, maybe some movies too are better off left dead.
Louis (Jason Clarke) and Rachel (Amy Seimetz) have moved to small-town Maine for a little peace and quiet and to spend more time with their children, nine-year-old Ellie (Jete Laurence) and their toddler, Gage. They happen to live next to a busy road with dangerous drivers speeding at all hours. An accident claims the life of their beloved family cat, but the kindly old neighbor Jud (John Lithgow) has a piece of advice. Beyond the “pet sematary” in the woods is a place where the buried dead come back to life. The cat comes back, though is mean and different. Later, another accident takes the life of Ellie, and Louis cannot let her go. He buries her in the hallowed grounds, she comes back, but she’s not daddy’s little girl any longer, and people will pay a high price.
Eschewing a sense of camp, the film risks being overrun by its own sense of seriousness, which only works if there is room given to explore the ramifications of grief, the choices people make when they’re hurting, and the irony of good intentions. If you’re going to go in a serious direction then you need the confidence and dedication to play to that decision, and that’s not the case with the 2019 Pet Sematary. It’s lacking those important moments of contemplation or even dwelling with the horror of bringing back a loved one from the dead. There’s only so much evil hissing cat you can have before you hit a limit and start saying, “What else you got?” There’s going to be an escalation, I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler, considering the nature of the premise but also its predecessor being 30 years old, that one of the children will die only to be brought back. It’s also an easy speculation that they will “come back wrong” but the drama is processing this decision and trying to mitigate the mounting consequences. How far will a parent go to protect their child even if that child is an undead murderer? The trials should strain the moral resolve or our protagonist while reveling in the grotesque.
Because every viewer is going to already expect this much, it’s the film’s job to develop this premise in a satisfying manner and/or provide surprises from our expectations. Pet Sematary 2019 unfortunately does neither, barreling through the dramatic downtime when it could be developing its horror and unleashing standard slasher jump scares. When Louis is brushing his daughter’s tangled hair he runs his fingers over the metal staples in the back of her skull holding her head together. It’s a stark reminder that she is not the same, and it goes beyond her scraggly voice and unyielding stares meant to convey the same information. The film needed more moments like this, small details to unnerve and remind, rather than making her essentially The Ring girl from the start. The movie voluntarily eliminates its own storytelling runway, giving it little room to ramp things up and being forced to simply jump to the big bad killer demon girl. The filmmakers try and compensate somewhat by giving Rachel her own independent haunting, seeing hallucinations of her dead, twisted deformed sister. Those sequences reminded me of the slow stirring sequences in 2017’s It, drawing in the audience to dread what will happen next. It’s a side plot that could be eliminated entirely and I enjoyed these sequences the most because it was at least something pregnant with possibility.
Many of the new additions feel like the filmmakers are fumbling for something else to be scary because they’ve consciously or unconsciously admitted defeat with their zombie. She’s creepy, sure, but she starts at full creepy and stays there. We get things like animal masks reminiscent of 2013’s home invasion thriller You’re Next. We get the spooky visions of ghosts that the child can see. We get Rachel’s taunting visions that never feel fully integrated into the larger whole with any thematic value. It could have tapped into her guilt praying for the demise of her sister for a well-earned sense of relief, and this same feeling coming ahead anew with her reanimated child, challenging her to reconcile her past actions and personal culpability and goad her into action. But like most aspects of the supernatural be-careful-what-you-wish-for parable, it’s given precious little deliberation and instead it’s more standard thriller moments to goose scares. I do appreciate that the film takes its sense of bleakness to the very bitter end, departing from the 1989 original for an even darker conclusion. The only problem is that it left me wanting the sequel. By the end, I think many viewers will agree that they wish a Pet Sematary movie, at least one under this oh-so-serious-slasher direction, had started at this end point instead and gone forward, exploring the full ramifications of the larger world.
As is wont for the Internet, there has been some gnashing of teeth over the fact that the remake kills a different child, but I think this is the smart move. It allows the remake to stand apart from the original and chart a path of its own, not that it’s very far. It also boosts the practicality of what it can do for horror. As any parent may attest, there’s more to worry about what a nine-year-old can do than a two-year-old. Even reanimated and filled with supernatural power, it’s still a small child that can be overwhelmed. An evil pre-schooler has a bit more limited mobility for their murder rampages.
For fans of King, or fans of genre horror, there may be enough standard thrills and chills to enjoy the new Pet Sematary. In the extremely spotty spectrum of King movie adaptations, it’s definitely somewhere in the middle, not bad per se but nothing special.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Serenity might have the most bizarre plot twist of any film this year, or maybe even the last few years. For the sake of you, dear reader, I’ll not spoil it, but it’s hard to talk about this neo-noir crime thriller without revealing its larger grand design. I have no real idea what writer/director Steven Knight, a talented wordsmith who has written Eastern Promises, Locke, and Peaky Blinders, was going for with this murky genre mishmash. Matthew McConaughey plays Dill, a local fisherman who for the first 18 minutes of the movie is obsessed with a hard-to-catch tuna like it’s Moby Dick. Literally, this is the key plot for 18 minutes. Then his old flame (Anne Hathaway) comes to town and looking for Dill to help her kill her abusive husband, Frank (Jason Clarke). Now we’re on fertile noir ground, and then one hour in the film throws a curve ball that nobody will see coming, and it spends another 45 minutes dealing with those repercussions. Some of this added knowledge leads to creepy exchanges where Dill is peeling back the veneer of his sleepy island town residents, but really it’s a confusing and unnecessary twist that leads to strange thematic implications and tonal oddities that may lead to unintentional laughter. The sentimental ending conclusion, born out of murder both real and imaginary, feels like it was ripped out of Field of Dreams and forcibly grafted on. So much of the drama is about following what is expected of us, and there are more than a few passing, though intriguing, Truman Show-esque moments that reward further examination, but these are put on hold to slay the abusive husband/step dad through the power of an elusive fish. I don’t know what to make out of Serenity. The acting is fairly solid, the photography is stylish, and Knight knows how to spin a mystery, but to what end exactly? It feels like a passionate albeit misguided student film trying to say New Things about old tropes. In the end, it’s a fish tale that is better off being thrown back. See, I can do fish things too.
Nate’s Grade: C
Director Tim Burton has always been attracted to the weirdos, the outsiders, the freaks, so it seems fitting that he attached his name to a big-budget, live-action remake of Disney’s 1941 animated film of the flying pachyderm, Dumbo.
Shortly after World War I, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) is returning home and reuniting with his two children, Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins). They’re rebuilding in the wake of their mother’s loss and Holt’s war amputation. He and his horse-wrangling wife used to be the star attraction for their traveling circus run by Max Medici (Danny DeVito). The circus is on hard times until Max purchases a pregnant elephant that gives birth to a big-eared baby with a special ability to fly. Suddenly the crowds come pouring back and a bigwig like V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) sees a big opportunity. He offers the circus to move to his state-of-the-art theme park, Dreamland, and for Dumbo to perform with his famed trapeze artist, Colette (Eva Green, seeming to take the mantle of Burton’s Raven-Haired Muse, after Helena Bonham Carter, and before her Lisa Marie, and before her Wynona Rider — seriously, look it up, there are only four movies in his whole career that don’t feature these actresses). The big new stage only serves as a reminder of how lonely Dumbo is and the family plots to reunite him with his mother.
As we enter a precipitous new age of Disney live-action over saturation, each new remake must be asked the question, why does this film need to exist? I feel like we can classify the glut of live-action remakes into two categories, namely the older, less revered films and the newer, more revered. Take for instance two 2016 remakes, The Jungle Book and Pete’s Dragon, as both films felt enough distance from their sources’ release that they had the comfort to be different. In the case of both movies, especially the beautifully lyrical Pete’s Dragon, I’d say they are improvements. But those movies are old and the nostalgia for them is minimal. That’s the not the case for films like Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin and The Lion King, where the originals are beloved by an audience that still remembers them fondly and vividly, now slightly older, and looking for fidelity rather than artistic invention. When the live-action 2017 Beauty and the Beast, an otherwise dreary and pointless remake of a new classic, makes a billion dollars, Disney has a pretty clear indication of what the wider audience wants with their remakes. Dumbo is a movie that actually has some room for new artistic life, especially with a talent like Burton adding his own signature dash of razzle-dazzle. There are some things from the source material that could use further examination, like animal abuse, and some things from the 1941 original that could deservedly be eliminated, like the racist “Jim Crows.” It may be early but I think Dumbo will be my favorite of the 2019 Disney remakes.
There’s an enjoyable sense of whimsy and wonder to the film that also belies a darker underbelly, something that Burton has featured since Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands. Early on, Burton and screenwriter Ehren Kruger (Ghost in the Shell, The Ring) establish the world by returning dear old dad back but with one less arm. It undercuts the reunion and also leads to a crossroads of mounting questions about his viability as a performer and adaptability. The children and the father are the real stars of the film, a family trying to reconfigure their new identity in the absence of their mother and the readjustment of their father after he can no longer be a headliner. It’s enough to ground the movie emotionally and provide a sense of stakes. The motley crew of circus performers and sideshow acts serves as a non-traditional family unit, a found family, and one fighting for their own slice of dignity. I’m likely reading more into this than intended but the fact that I can shows that Burton and company at least put in solid efforts to stake a foundation. The wonderfully macabre, askew Burton elements are present as well, especially in the production design for Dreamland, which looks like another fantasy neighborhood straight out of Halloweentown in Nightmare Before Christmas. The presence of Eva Green is another enjoyable highlight as a French acrobat that becomes close to Dumbo and the Farrier family as a whole. It’s sweet with a little touch of the eccentric, which is another fine way of describing Max Medici and DeVito’s affectionate performance. There is an offbeat sense of humor to and visual whimsy to the film that works with the standard heartwarming family elements rather than against it. It’s a movie that can hit you in the gut and then make you smile the next minute.
Dumbo is less a character than he is a symbol, but it works for the most part even if it hampers the larger storytelling prowess of the film. He’s a symbol for every person to import their own feelings, an outsider who feels like they do not belong. He’s also a symbol of innocence as a gentle animal, something to tug at the heartstrings when he’s mistreated or separated from his mother. It’s hard not to feel something when the camera gets the special close-up for his big, soulful eyes. He’s even more sad looking in garish clown makeup. The animal rights angle isn’t heavy-handed but enough to get you feeling sympathy for poor creature. It sets up a big escape to reunite mother and son and free them from captivity that reminded me of a 90s kids movies, but not necessarily in a negative way. I think that’s one of the achievements of Burton’s movie is that he has reshaped an older children’s movie model with his unique touches. It’s a far more successful alchemy than 2010’s dull Alice in Wonderland.
I also have to call special attention to Michael Keaton’s villainous character specifically because it is an obvious stand-in for Walt Disney. Not only does he own a theme park, where the customers come to him rather than the other way around, but also he’s a showman who’s underhanded, greedy, and backbiting, ready to cut anyone loose. There’s even a scene that shows him comically inept when it comes to actually performing any actual practical skill, like controlling an electrical panel (Keaton’s exaggerated movements made me think of a child pretending to be an adult at work). Keaton is also wonderfully daft as the blowhard. He feels like he’s in a very different movie that only he knows about, and while it didn’t exactly fit it made every one of his scenes more entertaining. Burton and his team were biting the hand that feeds them, calling into question the intentions and actions of the man that gave birth to the empire, and Disney miraculously approved of this. Maybe they felt they had gotten so big (sayonara, 20th Century Fox) that criticism didn’t matter, or maybe it somehow slipped under their collective radar, I cannot say, but its inclusion is both welcome and fascinatingly bizarre for a 2019 Disney release.
At its core, Dumbo is an enjoyable if limited remake, a movie that sets its ambitions low but sets out to try a few different things with modest success. There are some scenes that go too far, whether it’s the extended reaction shots of crowds vocally heckling… an elephant, or a pretty lazy message that we can all be special because of what we have inside, that reminded me what the finished film could have been, namely far worse. It doesn’t quite soar but it does rise above my expectations and kept me pleasantly entertained.
Nate’s Grade: B
I think it’s important to state that Us is not Get Out and that’s perfectly okay. Not every movie can be a Get Out, an experience that was so refreshing, socially relevant, wickedly fun and dynamic that I immediately wanted to see it again and tell everyone I know to join in. Writer/director Jordan Peele shed his funnyman past and flexed his impressive genre know-how to make a knockout of a movie with an amazingly structured story, allowing all of the pieces to snap together with clever precision. It was my own second favorite film of 2017 and I was highly looking forward to Peele’s follow-up in the realm of what goes bump in the night. Don’t go into Us expecting Get Out. It’s not quite the sum of its parts and has some storytelling shortcomings that limit the impact of its visceral thrills. It’s an engaging horror movie, but it’s far more allegorical and far less tidy and satisfying.
The Wilson family is spending their summer vacation at a rental home in Santa Cruz, California. Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) and her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) are trying to enjoy a getaway with their children, teenage daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and young son Jason (Evan Alex), when strange coincidences keep occurring. This is the same beach town where many years ago Adelaide had a traumatic childhood experience getting lost from her bickering parents. Then one night Jason informs his family that there’s another family standing in their driveway. The Wilson family is hounded by mysterious doppelgangers, each a cracked mirror version of themselves. This new family wants what the Wilsons have and will use any bloody means to see that they get it.
Us is more a straight horror film and has plenty of excellent, terrifying, and smartly directed scenes to make an audience squirm in their seat. Peele has established in two movies a strong instinct for horror and how to expertly stage a scene. His camera is judicious in what it does and does not show the audience, holding onto moments to escalate tension and providing no escape for an eager audience. The majority of the second act is a home invasion thriller and these scenes and subsequent chases and escapes can be nerve-wracking. Each character has their own opponent and each has their own method of trying to outsmart or out maneuver their downtrodden doppelganger. I was getting plenty of Funny Games vibes, a movie I downright despise, but what it could have been if the creator actually cared about the inhabitants. The family and their bonding is a strong empathetic anchor for the audience, so we watch each member of the family battle a literal incarnation of their inner demons. Peele also assembles an effective collection of spooky imagery, from caged rabbits, to the slice of golden scissors, to a carnival funhouse, to even the nature of that 80s social event, Hands Across America. You can sense Peele’s love of horror and the entertainment value horror movies afford. There’s a strong central mystery to guide the narrative and the sense of discovery from Act Two onward keeps things fresh as we learn more and more about these doubles.
From a technical craft standpoint, Us has the upper hand over Get Out. This is a movie that wants to scare you and Peele has devoted great consideration into his artistic elements to achieve that key principle. Peele knows exactly how to craft a particular mood and what genre elements to pepper in and to what amount for the right response. The photography by Mike Gioulakis (It Follows) is evocative and makes great use of limited light to capture an eerie and unsettling feeling. The musical score by Michael Abels is also exceptional, making the most of each heightened scene and doing wonders with a dark, operatic version of the chill 90s song “I Got 5 On It” by Luniz. It makes for a fun, frightening, and favorable film experience in the moment-to-moment sequences of build and release.
The performances are another strength, with each member of the family getting extra range thanks to their dual roles. Nyong’o (Black Panther, 12 Years a Slave) is the standout and emotional center of the movie. Her double is the leader of her clan and the only one that has the ability to speak, except speaking isn’t quite the right word. It’s more like the words escape her throat, raspy and without intonation. It’s a remarkable commitment on her part and she tries a lot of weird character tics, most of them work, from her herky-jerky to robotically possessed physical movements, unblinking eyes, and then there’s that startling voice. Duke (Black Panther) finds his footing as a comedic foil, starting as a corny but loving dad and thrust into a family defender that gets more and more tired of the horror movie nonsense he endures. The kids all do solid, effective work with what they’re given, seizing their moments. Elizabeth Moss (The Handmaid’s Tale) plays a bourgeoisie friend and has a fantastic moment with lip gloss that made me horrified and entranced all at once.
This is where the merits of the film start running into conflict with Peele’s muddled intentions and messy execution toward the finish. As I said, it’s far more allegorical in approach; meaning for the longest time it seems to be a film outside the bounds of literal interpretation. That’s fine since many horror films rely upon a heaping helping of metaphor for larger implications. I was prepared for Us to stay in this creative territory. Except Peele makes a late decision to squeeze his movie into a bizarre and distracting middle ground, where it feels like the metaphor is the real message, if you can decode it. Once you stand back and assess the full Us, it doesn’t hold together in allegory or explanation.
Even hours after seeing the movie, I cannot say whatsoever what the intended theme is for Us, and this really befuddles me since Get Out was laser-focused in this regard. Peele isn’t just cranking out fun, throwaway genre movies, he’s trying to make statements through horror and elevating the genre in artistic ways. Get Out postulated how being a black man in America was like living in a horror movie and a Stepford Wives-meets-Being John Malkovich commentary on the usurpation of minority agency and the commodification of black bodies. It’s not every day that a horror movie wins an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, let alone deserves it, and Peele’s treatise on race relations was perfectly structured, each piece snapping together and better informing the whole, with setups and payoffs galore, and at its heart was its relevant message. With Us, I don’t really know what Peele is trying to say here. There’s a simple duality theme but that seems pretty weak and underdeveloped. There may be a have/have not inequality discussion but this gets into trouble in the final act (more on that below). I don’t think race even factors into the overall message, as a late turn reveals that the doppelgangers extend beyond our central African-American family. What is Peele trying to say with Us? I’m at a real loss and I’m trying to process that confusion and my own expectations.
This might have worked better had Peele not elected to supply a hasty sci-fi explanation for why things are the way they are, and in the process he strands his film in a contentious middle zone that tries to find a logical context to plant his allegory. I won’t get into what exactly the details of this explanation are but suffice to say it doesn’t really hold together and invites far more questions, each one picking apart the reality of the film, which disintegrates at an ever-increasing speed. How far-reaching is this conspiracy? What is the ultimate goal? How do these people think they will win? Why now? There’s also a big twist ending that should be obvious for anyone paying attention, but what makes this decision worse is not that it’s predictable but that it hardly sheds any new dimension to what came before. It doesn’t really change our reading of certain people because of the time it happened and so the big meaning is its existence as a twist. It doesn’t redefine the narrative in the way that great twists should. It might play into a larger thematic point except, as described above, that area is hard to ascertain. The last third of Us gives a sense of scope and rationale but the movie also loses its form, trading in dream logic and then trying to provide a new real world context that cannot hold.
Friends have already asked me whether Us is a good movie, and I’ve found myself saying, “Yes, but…” Peele’s follow-up left me with more questions than answers and a nagging sense of dissatisfaction that began to eat away at my otherwise good time in the theater. Us has some fantastic moments and tense scares but I cannot say what its muddled theme is, the hazy explanation doesn’t really work, and the overall intent left me perplexed. It’s an evocative horror movie with solid to great performances from a very game cast of characters. Given its more free-floating plot, it feels like the kind of movie that would hold together by a strong thematic core. I think most people will leave Us somewhat scratching their heads and wondering what it was all about, but not as an accessible puzzle to decode. It’s more a puzzle that doesn’t resemble the picture on the box and is frustratingly missing a few too many pieces to come together.
Nate’s Grade: B
In 1987, former Colorado senator and governor Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) was the leading Democrat in primary polling and a sure bet to take on George H.W. Bush for the White House. In three weeks time, his campaign was in tatters and he folded. It all stems from a supposed affair he was conducting with Donna Rice (Sara Paxton). They deny anything but Gary acts like he has something to hide, evading the media’s questions about his marriage and his past history with infidelity. Enough time has passed in the political landscape to take a deeper dive into Gary Hart’s disintegration in the spotlight, and the moment serves a tipping point for changing media coverage. Journalists talk about the “old days” where candidate infidelity and ailments were just ignored as a gentleman’s agreement of sorts between the gatekeepers, but should they have? While a candidate’s martial relations are significantly less important than policy and governance, they do reflect character and what he or she (but, let’s face it, mostly he) acts with authority. Strangely, The Front Runner wants to paint the hungry journalists digging into Hart’s past as the real enemy, going above and beyond the bounds of ethics for crass sensationalism. This is directed and co-written by Jason Reitman (Tully, Up in the Air), a shrewd storyteller with a knack for human drama, which makes the “both sides are bad” equivocation all the more curious. Jackman is strong and has several scenes of righteous speeches talking about how he didn’t sign away his privacy, except when you run for president, you kind of do, and the American public deserve to know if their leaders abuse power. The movie favors long takes with a wide supporting cast of players that speak like they stepped out of an Aaron Sorkin workshop (an exchange celebrating the “integrity” of news anchors wearing bad suits feels ripped right from Sorkin’s unguarded typewriter). The film is nicely sympathetic to the “other woman” in this scenario and treats her like a human being with dimension. The PR recovery and shady deeds of Hart’s team reminded me of the Chappaquiddick, which placed an unfavorable scrutiny on Ted Kennedy and his team of political spin masters after his deadly car accident. It all makes for an entertaining movie with solid performances and interesting character shading, but its perspective is too wobbly, trying to lay the blame on everyone it can find.
Nate’s Grade: B
The fraught world of Captive State is interesting, a political landscape ten years into an alien occupation. We follow a small band of human resistance fighters working to get past a security stopgap to strike back at the alien overlords who resemble human-sized pine trees. John Goodman plays a police security chief trying to unravel the insurgent conspiracy while working with the collaborative government. It has a slight cat-and-mouse feel of a good conspiracy thriller and there are asides that broaden the world, giving an interesting peak at the realities of this strange new world. The problem is that it feels like a whole mini-series stripped into a two-hour movie. The characters feel less like people and more like impressions of people, and the story is plowing through so many incidents that there isn’t much time to flesh them out except for the occasional trope. As a result, the movie feels like it has a lot of things happening but my interest level flagged because I felt little for the characters. The limitations of the budget are felt here and there as far as the sense of scale. Director/co-writer Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) takes a docu-drama approach and favors nighttime chases and sneaking, which also conceals special effects restrictions. The visual grittiness adds a visceral level of realism but can lend itself to additional logic questions. I kept waiting for the world to feel more lived-in and offer important slivers to add layers of context to this conspiracy. Captive State is frustrating with how much it leaves unspoken and unclear. It’s ten years in to this occupation and what exactly have the aliens offered the world? What has changed? Why are these freedom fighters fighting back? What are the goals of the aliens? I can handle ambiguity and nuance but with too much the world building can feel unsatisfying and incomplete. It comes together well but by the climactic end I felt the universe it established was more intriguing with potential than the story it delivered.
Nate’s Grade: C+