by Philip Price
Directed: Neil Marshall
Starring: David Harbour, Milla Jovovich & Ian McShane
Runtime: 2 hours
While one might expect a single-word description of how they feel coming out of something called “Hellboy” to be along the lines of "bewildered" or "curious" or even "confused" what it actually feels like coming out of Neil Marshall's 2019 re-boot of the Hellboy comic character is "numb".
There is so much happening in this desperate (which makes zero to no sense given no one was clamoring for more) attempt to bring Mike Mignola's comic back to the big screen in hopes of launching another new franchise that it doesn't seem anyone involved stopped long enough to consider what that franchise might need to look like given the context of its existence. Instead, screenwriter Andrew Crosby is throwing as many characters, subplots, flashbacks and countless other things at the audience at once that it's overwhelming to the point of feeling nothing. That is to say, this new “Hellboy” fits squarely into the cliché of "everything and nothing all at once".
If one were to describe “Hellboy” and everything that it contains it would be almost ignorant to think that what was about to come your way couldn't potentially be one of the greatest albeit most ridiculous things ever while in reality it turns out to be nothing short of the definition of incoherent. And despite so much going on, nothing lands, nothing to make you-the viewer-care about anything or anyone on screen, and while there is technically a narrative here this is mostly just an excuse to exercise some cool practical make-up and prosthetic techniques as strung together through blandly executed action sequences (except for the final, epilogue scene - where is that “Hellboy”?!?!).
It’s not all bad as David Harbour, taking over for the much-loved Ron Pearlman who previously dawned the sawed-off demon horns in Guillermo del Toro’s two original films, is seemingly having a lot of fun and making the most out of having the opportunity to play the character, but his vigor isn’t near enough to justify sitting through an extended two-hour runtime for a movie that could have been streamlined into 90-minutes of pure, horror/action schlock. This version of the comic is what it seemed Marshall wanted to make given he was granted an R-rating by Lionsgate, but even the leaning into of the restricted rating is wasted on an excess of blood rather than being capitalized on with more creatively gruesome endeavors.
by Philip Price
Directed: Kevin Kolsch & Dennis Widmyer
Starring: Jason Clarke, Amy Seimetz & John Lithgow
Runtime: 1 hour & 41 minutes
As with 2017's “IT,” this year's adaptation of Stephen King's 1983 novel is an update of an earlier adaptation that has a loyal fan base born of the generation in which King also penned these horror stories. Is this to say those original, filmed adaptations were more in tune with King's stories than today's updates? I couldn't say specifically in regards to “IT” or “Pet Sematary” as I haven't had the nerve to open either of those books, but while 1989's “Pet Sematary” and 1990's “IT” miniseries undoubtedly share a certain kindred spirit with King’s novels these current re-imaginings operate on a grander scale of sorts - idolizing the source material in a way that translates these stories in more epic terms to the screen.
King’s emotionally-driven, character-based work tends to use the horror genre more as a mask for saying what he wants to say which would seem to account for why King’s work has always operated in being more vividly unsettling than straight up scary, but the themes of Pet Sematary are really dark ... even for King.
Though I have no personal connection or nostalgic ties to either King’s original novel or the original 1989 movie adaptation I tend to be intrigued if not by the premises of King’s works, but for the emotional investment they are able to create through this aforementioned character work.
This is why “IT” ultimately worked so well two years ago for despite having a terrifying clown at the center it was the group of kids and their personal stories as well as the dynamics between them that allowed the movie to work and to be about things besides Pennywise. In directing duo Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer’s new take on King’s material, there is certainly no fear of going as far as is necessary to evoke the grief that comes along with dealing in loss and more specifically-the loss of a child. Kölsch and Widmyer undoubtedly create a sense of dread from the beginning playing the titular location in a way King would be proud as this sense of dread is not only represented in the literal manifestation of this burial ground, but of the reach it has into the lives of those that both live near and/or meddle in it. An interesting concept and fitting approach, no doubt, but while the emotions are as raw as the aesthetic approach it is a lack of connection to these character’s-especially Jason Clarke’s withdrawn nature despite his character’s actions-that give “Pet Sematary” a strong sense of purpose if not the lasting, devastating impact it seems pre-disposed to possess.
by Philip Price
Director: David F. Sandberg
Starring: Zachary Levi, Mark Strong & Asher Angel
Runtime: 2 hours & 12 minutes
“Shazam!” immediately sets itself apart from its comic book brethren by opening the film not with a flashback to that of the titular hero’s origin, but to that of the origin of its main villain; an antagonist that very easily could have been the protagonist and caused this story to be a very different one had one slight outcome been different.
Maybe slight is the wrong word as Mark Strong's Dr. Sivana takes a certain defeat to heart and dedicates his life from this point on to figuring out why he wasn't worthy of dawning the Shazam suit. The point being, director David F. Sandberg (“ Annabelle Creation”) and screenwriter Henry Gayden (“Earth to Echo”) begin their movie by filling in the blanks of the bad guy and immediately set-up the audience with an understanding and empathy as to how the rest of the events we see unfold do in fact unfold in the manner they do. This is a key ingredient in a recipe that is repeated so often these days with so many super hero and comic book films saturating the market that filmmakers, studio heads and whole creative teams alike have essentially been forced to find ways to differentiate their hero from the next studio's hero.
While personally, I'm as sincere a fan of both sides of the studio rivals as I could imagine to be “Shazam!” does a pretty damn good job of making a full-length, fun feature out of what could arguably be one of the corniest super heroes ever put to panel.
Shazam is a super hero that is actually a kid and is costumed like a hero out of a 1940's serial series wearing his cape with pride and his spandex with dignity as the large, luminescent lightning bolt that is the symbol of his heroism shines brightly at the costume's core.
While most modern super hero films will tend to dial back the costumes that graced the pages of the source material so as to ground the film and the character in more of a familiar reality, “Shazam!” embraces the corniness whole-heartily and then balances it with a true threat in the aforementioned villain, true tension in that villain's master plan, and real stakes that aren't cataclysmic in nature, but more personal both in relation to the characters we come to know and invest in as well as in making the film feel more like a small movie made for a specific group of people rather than the big movie that appeals to everyone it so very clearly is.
Director: Stephen Merchant
Starring: Florence Pugh, Jack Lowden & Lena Headey
Runtime: 1 hour & 48 minutes
Let me preface this review by saying I hate sports. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve never seen the appeal of physical competition. I was never that fast, strong or aggressive. I simply didn’t care for athletics and to this day it just isn’t my thing. I typically feel the same way about sport-centric movies. They don’t usually grab my attention or move me in anyway. So, when I first heard about “Fighting with My Family,” I wasn’t exactly sold on seeing it. I didn’t see any trailers for it, I only knew that it was being produced by Dwayne Johnson and had Lena Headey in the cast. I went in scared that I’d find the film uninteresting and sit in an uncomfortable theater chair bored for almost two hours. I’m happy to report that despite my fears, “Fighting with My Family” packs quite the emotional punch.
To give a brief rundown of what the film is about, it all centers on the true story of Saraya Bevis (played by Florence Pugh) and her family who are obsessed with wrestling. Her parents push she and her brother Zak (played by Jack Lowden) to wrestle from a young age, with each of them becoming quite good. They both develop a dream to wrestle in the WWE and the opportunity arises after they submit audition tapes. Saraya is the only person who gets picked to continue on after try outs, with her brother staying behind in their hometown. From there, we see the ups and downs of Saraya and her family after she travels to Florida to train for the WWE.
The script of this film is written with plenty of wit and warmth to match. The humor is effective to the point that I had to wonder if Saraya and her family were truly this funny. The jokes are always either sharp or heartfelt, not a single one feels out of place. I appreciate the film balancing Saraya’s off-kilter family with a nuanced realism and heart. The onscreen family felt very real to me, a credit to the writing and the acting.
Thematically, the film deals with plenty of engrossing issues. This being a true story, the film did have an easy time finding themes to work with. It’s the subtle execution of these themes onscreen that is so incredibly impressive. People projecting both their dreams and failures onto others is something that Saraya deals with throughout the course of her story. Her family puts all of their own baggage and ideals onto Saraya. The film portrays her as sympathetic in this regard, as she’s just trying to find herself while realizing her own dreams. There’s also exploration of embracing your imperfections or what makes you weird in the film. Saraya is constantly hearing that she’s a freak or that her family is strange, and throughout the story she has to learn to fully embrace who she is. This is showcased in a way that mirrors a phoenix rising from the ashes. It’s beautiful seeing Saraya grow into herself, you root for her to the very end.
I love how good of a job the movie does at being fair to its characters. Each character has flaws and makes mistakes, as they are based off of real human beings. Saraya’s parents are very pushy toward their children in their pursuit of money. Despite this, I never once doubted that the parents truly loved their children. I think that they wanted the best for them but got caught up in their own dreams. Zak also struggles with not being able to realize his dreams while also being grateful for what he has. Though he clearly went through a frustrating time, the film doesn’t judge him for this behavior. Even Saraya makes her own mistakes, misjudging some of her fellow WWE trainees and almost quitting when things get hard. Instead of judging any of the characters, they’re portrayed as flawed but resilient. It’s a success that the film can show humanity at its best and worst without demonizing or idealizing it.
All of the rich themes wouldn’t be so wonderfully realized if it weren’t for the amazing cast at work here. Pugh is wonderful as Saraya, giving her own vibrant energy to the real life portrayal. She comes across as very sharp in her comedic timing, nailing every fiery one-liner with ease. The true strength of her performance lies in her ability to move the audience with just a subtle look. The moment where Saraya finds out that Zak is rejected by the WWE feels like a gut punch the moment that Pugh turns to the camera. She masterfully handles the layers of Saraya with vulnerability and strength, she’s a wondrous onscreen presence.
Pugh is joined by a tremendous supporting cast, starting with the always fantastic Headey, who does outstanding work here, bringing her dramatic gravitas that we’ve seen before but surprising with her remarkable comedic abilities. She delivers humorous lines with enthusiasm and spot on timing, it’s lovely to see her show off her obviously wide range. Nick Frost is delightful as Saraya’s father, giving a performance that is both parts hysterical and poignant. Lowden is a good match for Pugh as Zak, skillfully showcasing the inner turmoil he went through during this time. Vince Vaughn is also quite good as Saraya’s trainer in the movie. He delivers a performance that is filled with heart, humor and gusto.
I have to give director Stephen Merchant credit for making me actually care about sports. Of course, a large part of my investment of the wrestling in the film was due to my care for Saraya, but Merchant executes the fights masterfully. I was engrossed in seeing what move would come next every time someone entered the ring. I felt the tension whenever Saraya was fighting and that is due in large part to Merchant’s directing skills. I have to applaud him for convincing me for at least once in my life that I might be able to feign interest in a sport.
This is a movie that the world needs right now. It’s a story that will make you feel good without being cloyingly cheesy. It’s a rousing tale that will get your blood pumping and the fact that it’s true makes it 10 times better. I had never heard the story of Saraya Bevis before seeing this film, but it’s now a story I’ll never forget. This film moved me to tears and made me invested in a subject that I had previously hated. In my opinion, that makes “Fighting with My Family” a true cinematic champion.
Director: Dan Gilroy
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo & Zawe Ashton
Runtime: 1 hour & 53 minutes
“Velvet Buzzsaw” is the latest film from director/writer Dan Gilroy, whose last film was 2017’s “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” He’s joined here by the lead actors from his 2014 psychological thriller, “Nightcrawler,” Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo. ‘Buzzsaw’ takes a dark look at the fine art industry, just as “Nightcrawler” did with broadcast news. The result is just under two hours of witty satire, impeccable performances and a pretty lackluster ghost story.
Without spoiling anything in the story, the film centers around the fine art scene and all of its dark melodrama. The film begins by introducing us to art critic Mort Vanderwalt, his agent Josephina and art gallery owner Rhodora Haze. Not too long after the introduction, Josephina finds a man named Vetril Dease dead in her apartment building. Not too long after his death she wanders into his home, which is full of impressive artwork. Josephina brings these paintings to Mort who is blown away by their intense visionary qualities. Soon the paintings catch the attention of everyone in their art circle and they all want a piece of Dease. This is where things start to get scary – well, at least where they’re supposed to.
“Velvet Buzzsaw” has a fun first 20 minutes or so, poking fun at the fine art scene with wicked glee. The film is a successful showcase of unintentionally hilarious that pretentious people can be – particularly artistic people or critics. The film has a (rather creepy) art piece called the “Hoboman” robot. Someone describes this piece as so timely and impactful that you can “feel the winds of the apocalypse.” To my delight Gilroy has written these characters snobbish to the point of hilarity. It’s a treat watching the cast discuss the world of art in endless hyperbole and outrageous quips. The fun doesn’t last forever though as the film slows down immensely after about 30 minutes.
When Josephina finds the paintings of Dease, the film takes a hard turn for the worse. A once sharp dark comedy turns into a generic, messy horror film over a plodding middle chapter of the story. People start dying off one-by-one without much tension or creativity involved – it just sort of happens. Even the fact that there are haunted paintings killing people can’t make this more entertaining. Predictability plagues “Velvet Buzzsaw” – every death or “twist” is easily foreseeable as the film slowly drifts into B-movie territory.
The film feels a lot longer than its just under two-hour runtime. The last 30 minutes or so pummels you with a ton of mindless horror to wrap up the film. The third act feels both overstuffed and hollow, a lot happens but nothing here works in an effective way. Gilroy stretched the second act to its limit and rushed the third act to make up for it.
While the directing and writing fall almost completely flat, the cast showed up to play hard ball. Gyllenhaal is sensational here – taking his acting chops to the next level as the over-the-top Mort. He showcases a wildly unhinged electricity here, matched by few other actors. A pure force of nature, Gyllenhaal is the only real reason to check out this movie.
Russo is deliciously cold in this movie, her Rhodora is dark with no qualms about being ruthless in business. A massively underused Toni Colette brings a fun edge to the screen when she’s on it. The only poor casting choice is Zawe Ashton, whose Josephina is inoffensive but lackluster compared to everyone around her. The character comes across as dull and emotionless, which is a shame considering how much of the film she’s in.
“Velvet Buzzsaw” makes sense for Netflix to have picked up, it’s a perfect match for the streaming service. Netflix has a reputation for having few high quality projects and then dumping several mediocre offerings to expand their catalogue. It has enough intrigue and star power to draw you in but ultimately fails to keep you interested. ‘Buzzsaw’ has a few strong elements but overall struggles due to its lack of cohesion or depth. It’s not the worst thing you’ll ever see if you decide to watch, but it’s certainly no work of art.
by Philip Price
Director: J.C. Chandor
Starring: Ben Affleck, Oscar Isaac & Charlie Hunnam
Runtime: 2 hours & 5 Minutes
While watching I kept going back and forth in my head between who it was that directed this: J.C. Chandor or DJ Caruso?
No, wait! It would have to be Gavin O'Connor, right? That would make more sense given he directed Ben Affleck in “The Accountant” and if this thing would have been released in theaters it would have made bank just like that one ($155 million worldwide on a $44 million budget).
No? This is Chandor's movie? The guy who made stylish thinkers like “Margin Call,” “All is Lost” and “A Most Violent Year”? That guy made a major action picture for Netflix and not the guy who made “Disturbia,” “Eagle Eye,” “I Am Number Four” and “xXx: The Return of Xander Cage”? Maybe I misjudged you, Netflix. Maybe I had the wrong pre-conceived notions about you, “Triple Frontier.”
Like all of Chandor's past work, “Triple Frontier” has style for days - enough style to make me mad at the big, local theater chains for not allowing me the opportunity to see this on the big screen - but what is most surprising about the film is just how much style Chandor is able to maintain even as he rides into the nitty-gritty of some seriously dirty action sequences; they're grimy yet exquisite all at the same time.
Furthermore, as much as “Triple Frontier” might make itself out to be a military/heist flick it quickly becomes apparent that for all the action and palpable tension this canvas will beautifully serve to illustrate the screenplay from frequent Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”) collaborator Mark Boal quickly makes it evident this is as much about the themes of greed, dignity and the literal logistical lengths these men go to when priority is placed on things we've assigned value rather than those things that have actual value in our lives.
by Philip Price
Director: Tim Burton
Starring: Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton & Danny DeVito
Runtime: 1 hour & 52 minutes
I was negative 46 years old in 1941 when Walt Disney released his fourth (and shortest) animated feature, “Dumbo,” a mere 45 or so days before the attack on Pearl Harbor. To watch the original animated feature now is to see little more than simplicity and a cautionary tale about bullying, but in the wake of the context in which it was received initially it could certainly be perceived that a simplistic escape mixed with a prevailing underdog (or elephant) story might have been exactly what the country ordered.
The question then posed to director Tim Burton's new, "live-action" take on the film is what might it mean to those who decide to take in this new experience? What is peculiar about choosing the 1941 film for an updated re-imagining is the fact it is without doubt an experience that will not hold the same nostalgic meaning for the majority of the audience that ventured out to 2017's “Beauty & the Beast” nor does it feature any of the explicit technical wizardry of 2016's “The Jungle Book.” This is the latest film in a string of Disney re-makes that, at their best, can be soulful and moving (“Pete's Dragon”) and at their worst can be derivative and dull (“Alice in Wonderland”), but while “Dumbo” comes to us from the same auteur who ushered in this recent craze with that aforementioned "worse-case scenario,” “Dumbo” seemingly finds Burton not necessarily taking note of what others have done with similar opportunities, but more investing himself more wholeheartedly in the material; caring as much about the themes and ideas that populate his world as he does the design of the world itself.
Burton is often referred to as a visionary director and this comes more from the fact he has a signature style than it does the fact he's consistently innovative or wise beyond comprehension, but while-as with many of his more recent endeavors-the sheen may have worn from Burton's visual prowess, “Dumbo” is something of a welcome return in that it is a streamlined, inoffensive and largely harmless tale that simplifies the more recognizable themes Burton has worked in throughout much of his career. Sometimes simplicity is what's needed, what's necessary, and what connects viewers to material more effectively.
Burton's Dumbo doesn't break any new ground, but it does keep the emotional beats intact, preserving their poignancy. Who knows, maybe a simple reminder about placing yourself in someone else's shoes is exactly what the country needed right now even if we didn't order it.
by Philip Price
Director: Jordan Peele
Starring: Lupita Nyong'o, Winston Duke & Elisabeth Moss
Runtime: 1 hour & 56 minutes
“Therefore, thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them.” And so, goes the Bible verse Jeremiah 11:11 from the Old Testament which serves to add incredible weight to the context of Jordan Peele’s sophomore effort and follow-up to his Oscar-winning feature debut, “Get Out.” Specifically, this passage represents a key mind set for half of the characters in “Us” but given the countless interpretations each verse of the Bible inspires so does what this verse might mean to our cast of characters. Peele utilizes both a handful of horror movie tropes as well as some admittedly fantastic symbolism to reiterate the influence of this verse on his work time and time again throughout the film seemingly forcing the audience to determine just how much they might mean to take or receive from film, what these images and actions might mean, what they might be saying, what they're trying to say, or if they even intend to say anything at all. In the context of the Bible, this verse refers to God's punishment of the Jews after the fall of Babylon. God was punishing Jeremiah and his fellow Jews for worshiping false idols, but in “Us,” the descending attackers who are also doppelgängers of the characters that make-up our main family seem to be mad at their counterparts for a handful of other reasons. Of course, there is no doubt the argument could be made that in some regard the family under attack in “Us” are false versions of these invading doppelgängers thus the reason the red jumpsuit-laden clones are so intent on doing away with their counterparts, but it can't help but feel as if there should be more to Peele's second film than simply this tit for tat comparison between the verse he quotes and the story he is telling. Moreover, it doesn't just feel as if there should be, but it feels as if there is more at work here than just a metaphor for this kind of darkness that lurks inside us all; this ugliness we all have to come to terms with at some point in order to move on and either choose to better ourselves or succumb to our repressions. Of course, the seemingly numerous analogies and motifs littered throughout “Us” could simply exist to suggest the inspiration of different ideas and considerations in individual viewers while the core of what Peele is doing is executing his love of horror on a much grander if not more stimulating scale.
“Us” begins by introducing us to a young Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong'o) in Santa Cruz in 1984 as she attends a fair on the boardwalk with her father, Russel (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), and mother, Rayne (Anna Diop), as her father is very clearly already inebriated though still manages to convey a visible sense of affection for his daughter while Rayne is beyond irritated he can't seem to either hold his liquor or resist drinking on a family outing. This irritation only intensifies when Adelaide's mother asks her father to watch the young girl while she goes to the restroom and in that short period of time Russel loses her. Adelaide has wandered off into a house of mirrors and naturally-within this environment-happens to see herself many times one of which just so happens to not be a reflection. In what could only be described as a twin or clone of some kind Peele quickly takes us out of the scenario and fast forwards to the present day, but we are left with this looming sense of dread that these events also left a lasting impression on Adelaide. In this present day scenario, grown-up Adelaide is happily married to Gabe (Winston Duke) and has two children, a boy named Jason (Evan Alex) and a girl named Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), with Zora being the oldest and presently in full-on teenager mood while the younger Jason feels socially awkward and unsure of himself. Adelaide is seemingly happy and content as this representative of your average, middle-class family are headed toward, not coincidentally, Santa Cruz where they are staying in the same house near the beach that Adelaide grew up in while planning to get in some good hang time with a couple of friends who have rented a place down the street. It's evident from the get-go that Gabe measures himself against Josh (Tim Heidecker) and Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) if not his children against their spoiled, condescending teenage twins (Cali and Noelle Sheldon), so much so that Gabe goes to the extent of buying a boat without his wife's knowledge simply so that he might impress Josh or at least prove he's as capable and successful as his friend.
It's not long after meeting the Wilson family that they retire to their house and, as you've no doubt seen in the trailers, their doppelgängers show up with little to no explanation as to why they exist, what they want, or what their intentions are with this family that looks exactly like them. To go any further into plot details would certainly tend to begin spoiling certain elements, but while there will be slight spoilers throughout the rest of the review, what is interesting about “Us” at this stage in the discussion is how it tends to evolve from a contained study of family dynamics, social classes, and personality responses to mainstream culture mixed with a home invasion thriller to that of operating on a scope that is much grander than expected. By the time the second hour of the film kicks in the viewer bears witness to the fact this isn't just an isolated incident and that in fact what is happening to the Wilson's is something of a worldwide event-brought down to our level in a shockingly blunt and violent sequence. While Peele makes his audience aware of this scope though, this doesn't mean we necessarily see the repercussions of such events on the same scale as we, the viewers, stay in tow with the Wilson family and are led to believe they might be key to why these events are happening in the first place. That said, there is a plot twist in the third act, but it ultimately feels like a twist for the sake of having a twist in a horror movie. The twist certainly makes sense in the scheme of the story and undoubtedly enhances the meaning that Peele knows audiences are going to pull from his film, but it is an obvious twist that several other movies have utilized in order to serve as something "shocking". Peele doesn't rely on this to the point it's not effective as it's easy to see how said twist will make repeat viewings feel more layered, but upon first viewing it leaves the audience feeling as if the final, "big twist" was more of a cop out than a well thought out revelation given the type of analysis that has taken place throughout.
With “Get Out,” Peele essentially crafted a masterpiece in every aspect of filmmaking; from the writing to the performances to the meaning to the craft in general. As much is stated due to the fact it will always be somewhat unfair that Peele set this precedent for himself right off the bat, but it is now a fact of the matter and the fact is all of his films that follow forth from here on out will inevitably be compared to that debut. As previously mentioned though, “Us” is its own kind of interesting by virtue of the fact it broadens its scope as it unfolds which is immediately different from the more contained, air-tight narrative of “Get Out” that was broadened more in terms of theme than in actual scope or visual prowess. “Us” is Peele operating on a new level; a level that should be taken as his vision unfiltered. This is exciting, obviously, and everything Peele does here on a surface level, in regard to “Us” functioning strictly as a genre film is telling as it is genuinely scary in a world where genre films can easily rely on tropes or well-worn styles to get them through the necessary beats. With “Us,” viewers will naturally draw conclusions about the metaphors and the meanings of these metaphors, but Peele has done maybe the best thing he could have done in having first and foremost made an entertainingly scary (and scarily entertaining) movie. The doppelgängers are legitimately frightening and make no doubt that Nyong'o's dual performance here doesn't have everything to do with this effectiveness. The woman turns in two lead performances that are equally distinct and drastically different from one another. The tone that Peele balances (or tries to balance, but more often than not succeeds in) between real horror and comedic undertones is surprising and only rarely undercuts itself. As in “Get Out,” there was a heavy reliance on comedy as certain character's functioned only to serve as comic relief and while there are hints of as much within “Us” this is a much darker film in terms of where it goes and how far it's willing to go. Duke's Gabe is the best example of this, but Gabe is not a character that exists only to serve this function. Rather, Gabe is a fully fleshed-out character with a real arc, a definite purpose, and a key member of the ensemble who just so happens to be funny in moments even if not all of those moments are opportune. It's a hard balance to maintain period never mind for a full two-hours, but there are instances where the great tension the film has earned is deflated due to this need for a laugh that inadvertently stalls the momentum no matter how slight. The strong performances extend across the board and into the hands of the child actors that are given more to do than initially expected especially given the tone and genre type. Though they tend to be mostly one dimensional save for a few moments once shit really hits the fan the performances by Joseph and Alex add aspects and features to characters, we think we have figured out within the first five minutes of being introduced to them.
Furthermore, the scares are authentic when the tone does begin to swing for the fences of being a straight-up nasty, bloody horror movie with some pretty gnarly moments along with employing the kind of tension that gives one the sense of knowing they don't want to know what's about to happen despite the fact they can't help but continue to watch to find out what occurs because an investment has been made in these characters. Beyond what they might each represent we are simply rooting for this family to make it out of whatever weird situation this actually is; even if what is happening and how it is happening is never really made clear. The score from Michael Abels is also of note as it immensely enhances the scares and level of tension that reside within the experience. Not to play devil's advocate necessarily, but the hang-up with “Us” is that there is seemingly so much going on within the mind of the movie that it leaves things vague to the point any certain interpretation could be taken with a fair amount of credibility. While there is certainly nothing wrong with leaving strands open for interpretation or in littering details throughout one's narrative to eventually culminate in something that can be interpreted in any number of ways what is frustrating about “Us” is that it doesn't provide answers to some of the more basic plot points that would essentially nail down whether Peele wants viewers to at least lean in one direction or the other. Instead, “Us” feels as if it doesn't necessarily care what direction it leans toward as long as you, the audience member, take away a direction you can run with it in.
While “Get Out” was explicitly about race, “Us” more allows its audience to derive their own meaning from it. There are certainly theories that could be applied to “Us” that deal in race relations, in immigration, in border control, and limitations placed on people because they're not like the person a fair amount of "U.S." (get it?) citizens see in the mirror, but the film could also go a completely different way in being this portrait of duality-this analysis of our society turning in on itself with aspects like the aforementioned twins, the house of mirrors, and the weapon of choice in this film (the scissors) all representing two separate things that share a likeness that are bound together in some fashion. The "tethered" as they are often referred in the film are shadows of these more privileged counterparts, they seek to bring down with the opening bible verse being a pretty bold statement about things that mirror one another. The key in this line of thinking though, seems to be that of the tethered suffering through their lives at the mercy of the actions and decisions made by their above ground counterparts. The tethered are seemingly human beings on a base level but are treated as less than. They are the same as those we see flourishing in what is the movie's version of our reality, but without the same opportunity and in many ways represent the countless possibilities of the many versions a single person can become based on their upbringing and the amount or lack of love invested in them. There are a million other theories that could undoubtedly be taken from even these ideas that could likely be fully supported by details others could point out and the fact “Us” provides so much to chew on says a lot about the film in general, but it's something of a double-edged sword for as it could seemingly be about any number of things it isn't definitively about anything and therefore feels as if the film itself isn't sure what it wants to say. I'm sure Peele has a very specific idea and clear intent behind his writing and this story, but as far as how this is relayed to the average, non-objective movie-goer taking this at face value, “Us” ultimately ends up feeling light in its persuasion to help one see something familiar in a different light. It's one of those things where there is so much happening that it becomes more difficult to receive what was meant to be taken away. Again, with the precedent “Get Out” set it is understood there is a yearning to gain a new perspective from Peele's work even if it's not there and while it's unfair to maybe expect this from a creator on a consistent basis if Peele is going to lean into this reputation as he does with this sophomore effort it would be more fulfilling if everything he sets up had been followed through on in a more decisive manner.
by Philip Price
Director: Rupert Wyatt
Starring: John Goodman, Ashton Sanders & Jonathan Majors
Runtime: 1 hour & 49 minutes
Rupert Wyatt passed on making a sequel, never mind a complete trilogy of ‘Planet of the Apes’ movies which then gave writer/director Matt Reeves (“Cloverfield”) an in to complete the trilogy and go on to now be penning and planning a solo Batman film for WB's DCEU. Would Wyatt have preferred this career path? Who's to say? And who's to say if Wyatt had rounded out the ‘Apes’ films that he would have been offered the Batman film at all, but it does stand to question if Wyatt regrets his decision to pass on such high profile opportunities. Since deciding not to return to the world of stories about simians though, Wyatt has only made one feature (2014's re-make of “The Gambler” for Paramount which held a $25 million production budget and only turned over a $39 million worldwide gross) with “Captive State” being his second outing into feature-length material and a seemingly personal one at that. Wyatt co-wrote the screenplay for “Captive State” with Erica Beeney (“The Battle of Shaker Heights”) and serves as a producer, but this low-budget drama/thriller has more in common with Wyatt's 2008 breakout, “The Escapist,” than it does his 2011 introduction to the mainstream despite posing as a tale that typically functions on the same scale or budget as a ‘Planet of the Apes’ sequel.
This is all said because I like Wyatt as a filmmaker. I think the guy has a knack for striking the right, more intriguing chords in what otherwise might be considered mundane material and yet-with his own script-he fails to bring enough of his own voice to a genre that has been worn thin. Looking like Neill Blomkamp, but feeling more in the vein of Steven Spielberg's “War of the Worlds,” “Captive State” is a post-alien invasion movie that sports a fair amount of interesting imagery in its surprisingly effective handheld approach, a tight script whose final 10-to-15 minutes proves this thing had its head screwed on tight the whole time, and a score from Rob Simonsen that stands the all-important test of remaining engaging apart from the images it was meant to be paired with. On the other hand though, “Captive State” is also juggling a handful of disparate parts making it not nearly as interesting as all of these elements would purport it to be. There is a serious lack of investment in anything going on and there is a lot going on; there is simply no forward momentum within the narrative or within any of the characters as much of the races in which these characters are running feel familiar without ever adding much to the conversation.
John Goodman, Ashton Sanders and Jonathan Majors are each given the most to work with here, but Wyatt almost regrettably fills his cast with a great roster of character actors-including Alan Ruck, James Ransone and Kevin Dunn as well as Madeline Brewer and Machine Gun Kelly in bit parts-but gives them little to nothing to do. The most shameful offense to the under-utilized players here though is that of Vera Farmiga who ultimately comes to play a key role yet only appears in maybe five total minutes of the movie. What is largely Goodman and Sanders' movie means the two make well with that they're given and by virtue of their presence some level of engagement is earned, but while it's clear the film as a whole is a very meticulously plotted and deliberately paced piece none of these elements reach the heights of providing the audience anything to genuinely be engaged with or entertained by. At the very least, with this being a science-fiction tale of sorts, there was some expectation for a strong allegory and while there's definitely some subtext to the going-ons here it is too broad to really hit any kind of nail in a cutting or insightful manner. In the battle between order and chaos, there is a rare balance struck in Wyatt's “Captive State” that unfortunately leaves room for very little excitement.
by Philip Price
Director: Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck
Starring: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson & Jude Law
Runtime: 2 hours & 4 minutes
“Captain Marvel,” notable for being the first female-led Marvel Cinematic Universe film after 21 movies, is a fun and sometimes unique take on the super hero origin story that unfortunately never finds its groove enough to the point it's somewhat fearful the character won’t be able to get her groove back when it comes time for “Avengers: Endgame.”
For all intents and purposes, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s MCU debut is your boilerplate Marvel origins story which, by virtue of where we’re now at in this universe, makes it feel small in comparison to even the most recent additions. Falling somewhere in between the muddled middle of “Doctor Strange” and “Black Panther,” Brie Larson's Carol Danvers isn't a riff on an origin story we've seen before, but neither does it have the added elements of magic as in ‘Strange’ or the advantage of introducing us to a new world a la ‘Panther.’
In a Phase Three world, a mostly Earth-set origin story was going to have to give us a little something more than also doubling as the origin story for Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury or - at least - it was going to need to find a really cool, really fresh way to convey that story. For example, in the opening 20 or so minutes of “Captain Marvel,” we are treated to what is essentially a “Star Wars” or “Star Trek” like space opera with the full-on introductions of the Kree and Skrull races we've heard whisperings of for years as well as to the Kree home planet and their military force for which Danvers has been trained by her mentor, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law). Such introductions lend the film something of a “Guardians of the Galaxy” vibe, but the tone is different enough that this could simply be yet another facet of the MCU we haven't yet seen. Were Boden and Fleck, who also wrote the script alongside Geneva Robertson-Dworet, to harness the momentum of this initial set-up and action sequence, executing it in the fashion of a genre flick of this type that was released in the decade their film is set, the film might have proven to be a more unique and odd side venture for the MCU, but unlike the flavor Taika Waititi brought to “Thor: Ragnarok” or the subversiveness James Gunn infused his “Guardians of the Galaxy” films with, “Captain Marvel” ends up being a perfectly serviceable, but highly average entry in the ever-expanding MCU; a movie that feels more like the pilot of a ‘90s spin-off series that never hits the same strides as the series that inspired it rather than the explosive debut it could seemingly have so easily been.