PENGUINS

Directing: B+
Writing: B
Cinematography: B+
Editing: A-

It’s been fourteen years since March of the Penguins became the second-most successful documentary in history — and, by an extremely wide margin, the most successful nature documentary in history. It’s been so long. in fact, that plenty of kids who might see the new Disneynature film Penguins won’t even have any idea that other film even exists.

And there is a minor irony in this comparison, because March of the Penguins had originally been released as a French film, with voice actors hired to become mock-characters for the film. There is little doubt that the decision to use Morgan Freeman as narrator for the U.S. release, with no penguin character “voices,” contributed to that film’s massive domestic success. And yet, for Disneynature’s Penguins, Ed Helms is brought on as narrator, and here he actually does semi-regularly take on the voice of the one penguin we follow in this story. It includes a lot of silly humor, but here is where Ed Helms must be commended, because the big surprise here is how well it works.

The humor in Penguins is always silly but it’s never downright dumb, nor does it ever insult the viewer’s intelligence. In fact, although Helms clearly anthropomorphises the animal, none of the footage does. The footage offered here, as in many a documentary before it, makes clear the harsh environments of this particular species, the Adélie penguin.

And this film offers plenty of indelible images of its own. Above-ice angles on Orca whales’ dorsal fins peeking up through holes in the ice. Below-the-surface footage of leopard seals on the hunt. Penguins is pretty clearly aimed at younger audiences, and thus never gets quite as frank about the realities of nature as other documentaries. Still, it does get impressively real, given the context.

The mass migration of hundreds of thousands of penguins obviously means not all of them will survive. For much of this film’s concise, 76-minute run time, I had the feeling we’d never see predator actually catch its prey. It doesn’t happen for quite some time. But then, we finally see a seal wrap its jaws around a penguin and pull it down from the surface of the water.

The story here focuses, though, on a single penguin family, and specifically the male, which is given the name “Steve,” who meets his lifelong mate, “Adeline.” I’m not sure the names were especially necessary, except that I’ll admit to getting a kick out of Ed Helms acting as though Steve, seen in a wide shot alone in a vast expanse of snow, is calling out when he can’t find her: “Adeline! We see them engage in a little bit of mating ritual and then it cuts straight to the eggs, already hatched, needing to be kept warm. Steve and Adeline work together to raise their chicks to a point where they can fend for themselves. Curiously, the chicks themselves are not given names.

I found myself wondering if the filmmakers (co-directors Alastair Fothergill and Jeff Wilson; cinematographer Rolf Steinmann) really followed the same exact set of four penguins through an Antarctic spring and summer season, or if they simply cut down their 900 hours of footage to make it look as though they did. It’s impossible to tell these penguins apart, after all. Either way, I surprised myself by how emotionally invested I got. After seeing a leopard seal finally chow down on another random penguin, I genuinely feared one of the nearly-grown chicks might meet the same fate as it was being pursued by the predators. More than once I worried about whether this entire family would make it to the end intact.

You could call that a dilemma, I suppose: This is fairly typical emotional manipulation by the likes of Disney, thereby arguably compromising the integrity of a true nature documentary. I could not help but find myself enamored with this movie, though — they’re just that skilled at getting you into it. Penguins is an undeniable charmer, by turns dramatic and adorable. After a decade and a half of movies in one way or another about penguins, the subject matter is far from novel, but there is something slightly different to this one’s approach. Anyone who thinks documentaries are dull need only to be shown this one to be proven wrong.

Get ready to be tickled.

Get ready to be tickled.

Overall: B+

LITTLE

Directing: C-
Acting: B+
Writing: D
Cinematography: B-
Editing: C+

If I weren’t so OCD about seeing any movie from beginning to end if I am going to write a review of it, I would have gotten up and left Little halfway through. This movie has elements that elevate it — most notably the performances — but, unfortunately, really nothing redeems its truly awful script.

Directed and co-written by Tina Gordon, whose only other directorial feature credit is a 2013 film I never saw (or heard of) called Peeples, Little is written in a way that suggests Gordon herself was never actually a child, or maybe she’s of an alien race that never experiences childhood, and is now making her best guess as to what it’s like. The premise is essentially a rehash of the 1988 Tom Hanks film Big, just inverted in several ways: the protagonist is a black woman instead of a white man; and instead of wishing to be “big,” a sassy preteen girl with magic powers she doesn’t even know she has wishes for a horrible woman to be “little.”

So far so good, right? Anyone in their right mind would be on board so far. This sounds fun! And, to be totally fair, it must be noted that the principal actors are great. Regina Hall plays the grown Jordan Sanders, an uber-successful businesswoman who owns her own business developing apps. She lends a relatable charm and vulnerability to her hardened nastiness, even if it’s patently undeveloped in the writing.

And that’s the fatal flaw in this movie, really — none of the characters have any true dimension. The script, packed wall to wall with painfully corny platitudes about “putting up walls” and “being yourself”, is downright embarrassing. But, Issa Rae brightens every scene she’s in as April, Jordan’s assistant. And Marsai Martin is so great as “little” Jordan, she almost makes this movie watchable. Almost.

This ineptly executed story is not the fault of any of the actors, however — and Marsai Martin leaves the deepest impression. I sincerely hope to see more of her in other, better movies. It’s no less than she deserves. We already know Regina Hall and Issa Rae are great. If Little were a better movie, Marsai Martin would break out as a revelation.

But, it’s not often that I am in a movie theatre and literally find myself thinking, Oh my god, this is bad. If it weren’t for the undeniable charisma of the actors, I would freely expect this to qualify as the worst movie I saw all year. It may yet retain that distinction. Its ignorance of how humans actually interact and how life really goes is kind of breathtaking. Sure, you expect a certain level of such things in light comedies. But this one has a level of moralizing so clichéd it might put you to sleep. In fact, it did literally that to one guy in the theatre I was in. I envied his unconsciousness.

The very title is weirdly misleading, incidentally. “Little” Jordan is a grown woman in the body of a 13-year-old. Little has this alternate-dimension idea that any kid in middle school would actually refer to themselves as “little.” The title might work if the kid were, say, six years old. Not even adults in the real world call 13-year-olds — literal teenagers — “little kids.”

In other words, nothing in Little makes any sense. It has occasionally enjoyable moments, and surely plenty of people will enjoy it far more than I did. That doesn’t change how fundamentally dumb it is. One scene after the next strains suspension of disbelief, distracting in its contrived “cuteness.” It can’t even pick a tone, or decide whether it’s a kids’ movie or meant for adults, veering between Jordan “learning how to be nice” as she deals with the middle school she has to go back to, and Jordan otherwise dealing with very adult concerns.

Little is a big mess.

If only we could see them in a better movie.

If only we could see them in a better movie.

Overall: C

AMAZING GRACE

Directing: B+
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B+
Music: A-

It’s been 47 years since the live recording and release of Aretha Franklin’s 2-million-selling gospel album Amazing Grace. Over two nights at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Watts, Los Angeles, director Sydney Pollack recording twenty hours of footage depicting the recording of all the tracks. As the title cards at the beginning of the documentary of the same name, in theatres currently, we are informed that it was ultimately unfinished due to “technical difficulties” — until now. Director Alan Elliott, with credit as co-director, has finished the project nearly five decades later.

Among others, Aretha Franklin herself is credited as a producer. 76 years old when she died last year (and would still be now), she is 29 in this footage, just a couple of months from turning 30. And watching it now, you don’t have to be intimately familiar with Aretha’s vast body of work — and I am not — to find yourself unsurprised that this woman was a legend. As the title cards also note, just before this recording, she had just had a run of eleven consecutive #1 pop and R&B hits.

The documentary film Amazing Grace features no interviews, and is really nothing more than a fairly standard concert film — just made by a director who, at the time, was a novice when it came to synchronizing sound and visuals with live music footage. The way it looks now, it is well shot, well edited, and suitably focused on a woman with a stunningly flawless vocal ability.

It should be noted that I write this as a longtime atheist, who is nevertheless impressed enough by this woman singing, in this case, nothing but gospel songs. This is not exactly a music genre I typically get into. But, with the Southern California Community Choir behind her, the performances are generally amazing. This in spite of the choir often singing while seated, which I found a bit mystifying.

Aretha’s parents attended on the second night — as did Mick Jagger, who is seen rocking out a couple of times in the audience. Her father, a minister, gets up to speak a few words near the end of the film. Aretha herself has a poised, regal quality to her, even in some seriously dated outfits: On the first night, she wears a semi-billowy jumpsuit that makes her look somewhat like a rhinestoned flying squirrel. The second night, she wears a white and green paisley caftan. In just a couple of instances the footage cuts to her in a brightly colored pantsuit with a red jacket draped over her shoulders; this is only slightly distracting, and presumably just a bit of rehearsal footage.

For the two nights of the performances, they fill the large church audience, filled with people “moved by the spirit.” Reverend James Cleveland, who does a bit of singing with Aretha throughout, encourages enthusiasm in the crowd for the recording when he introduces her. Watching Aretha Franklin sing these songs, I found myself wondering how many takes she typically needed to cut tracks for studio albums. Every singing performance here, done live, is of studio quality.

There is no narrative, per se — Amazing Grace is simply a record of the recording of a live gospel album. But it’s not just any album, and it’s not just any singer. And her performance of the title track, a bit over halfway through the film’s 87-minute run time, is a genuine stunner. This is a showcase for a woman for whom “amazing” is not hyperbole, nor is “grace.”

A woman living up to the title.

A woman living up to the title.

Overall: B+

SHAZAM!

Directing: B-
Acting: B
Writing: B
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B-
Special Effects: B

Let’s get real: if you’re the type who is interested in any and all of the countless superhero/comic book movies now in existence, and you have an affinity for the lighter-hearted ones, you’re going to have a great time watching Shazam! You have no reason to read any more of this review. I mean really, why are you even here?

But, for the rest of us? Shazam! is still a pretty great time — for the last three quarters of its run time. Otherwise, it’s tonally inconsistent, has an under cooked plot, and would have benefited from greater depth.

I say all this with the full understanding that most of this movie’s fans won’t give a shit about such things. So what if I’d say I found it a worthy matinee, but feel no need to recommend anyone else rush out and see it? No one’s going to decided not to see it based on my recommendation.

I still have to pick it apart a bit anyway. Isn’t that what we’re all here for?

It could easily be said that Shazam! is one of, say, the two best DC Comics films of the modern era — the other being, of course, Wonder Woman. The two movies are of roughly the same level of quality, but for different reasons. It is, of course, easy to call them the best of recent DC output because, well, that’s a pretty low bar.

Shazam!’s biggest problem is a pretty big one: the first quarter of it unfolds in a strangely inorganic way, never quite achieving the tone of wide-eyed delight that the rest of the movie manages. This is kid of a long way to get to that point, especially when we’re introduced to 14-year-old Billy Batson (16-year-old Asher Angel) as a foster kid who, while he amuses himself with pranks involving the theft of police cars, is perpetually sullen and resentful, consumed with finding the mother who abandoned him as a small child.

So, when Billy suddenly finds himself randomly given the superpowers of an ancient order of wizards (and to say the backstory with the wizards has no meat to it is an understatement), it doesn’t naturally follow through that the grown-man superhero he becomes (played by Zachary Levi) would be more giddy about it than anything else.

That said, it is that giddiness that makes Shazam! so fun to watch, as Billy figures out through trial and error what his superpowers are, with the help of his foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer, giving the best performance in the movie). Billy has been re-homed into a large host family with a group of kids that are diverse in both age and ethnicity. One of the great running gags is the brain of a child — or teenager — inside the body of an adult. It’s kind of the superhero movie of the old Tom Hanks movie Big, where you find adults behaving like kids, but in funny and charmingly innocent ways.

This being a superhero movie, though, there must always be a supervillain, here in the form of Mark Strong playing Thaddeus, who we meet as a child in the movie’s oddly uncompelling opening sequence. He meets the wizard who is waiting for the person who is “pure of heart” who can take on his powers and guard against the demon monsters who represent the seven deadly sins (why? you got me!). He is deemed not pure enough of heart; the rejection becomes a lifelong obsession; he finds a way to become possessed by said seven “sin demons,” who represent one of the several plot points of the movie that don’t really work.

When Shazam! focuses on Billy, his delight at suddenly being superhuman, and his totally realistic 14-uear-old way of handling it, the movie works quite well, and makes for a lot of witty entertainment. Asher Angel and Zachary Levi both pair well with Jack Dylan Grazer as the foster brother, and the evolution of their familial friendship makes for good storytelling. The same cannot quite be said of the subplot of Billy’s search for his birth mother, or certainly of the ancient wizard with no particularly clear backstory, or smoky sin-demons terrorizing a Philadelphia holiday carnival. Who has a full scale carnival at Christmastime, anyway? That’s weird.

Much of the movie is well shot, though. The superhero and the supervillain can both fly, and there are some battle scenes both far above the city of Philadelphia and following them as they fly past downtown skyscrapers which are pretty cool to look at. Incidentally, this movie exists in the “DC universe,” which means the characters are aware of both Superman and Batman, the latter of who gets a couple nice references and punch lines. Apparently in the DC universe, there is no New York City, only Metropolis for Superman; Gotham City for Batman; and for Shazam . . . Philadelphia.

In short, Shazam! is not as good as it could have been or as I wanted it to be, but enough of it is uniquely entertaining to keep it from being a waste of time.

Also known as “Captain Sparkle Fingers!”

Also known as “Captain Sparkle Fingers!”

Overall: B

HOTEL MUMBAI

Directing: B+
Acting: B+
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B+

Watching a filmed dramatization of a historic terrorist attack can be tricky. Such depictions of Mumbai’s coordinated terrorist attacks on November 26, 2008 — which ultimately claimed the lives of 166 victims — are much like films about the 9/11 terror attacks in the U.S. It’s a very delicate subject matter with varying types of passionate feelings associated with them.

Hotel Mumbai, as it happens, is a multinational production of Australia and the U.S., in addition to India. Much of the action was filmed in Adelaide, which is where the director, Anthony Maras, is from. The large ensemble cast is quite deliberately international, including the likes of Dev Patel as a hotel attendant; longtime and prolific Indian actor Anupam Kher as the Taj Hotel’s head chef; Jason Isaacs (known as Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies) as a Russian model agent of some sort; and Armie Hammer and Nazanin Boniadi as a well-to-do couple with a newborn baby looked after by a nanny (Tilda Cobham-Hervey), to name but a small fraction.

This is a film about heroism, sacrifice, and even a pointed lack of judgment toward those who specifically choose not to be heroes or make sacrifices. There’s a real respectability in that, which is really never seen in films. Were this a typical American production, there would be pointed focus on the heroes and survivors. Well, you should know this: not all of the principal characters make it.

These attacks in Mumbai may have been coordinated, but their execution and fallout were largely chaotic. The attacks included bombings and shootings in multiple locations, which Anthony Maras shows unfolding in a way that serves the narrative. But he smartly chooses one part of it on which to narrow the focus for this story: namely, the many staff of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel who chose to stay and attempt to protect their guests. Many of them made it out — many of them did not.

There is too much going on and far too many characters to get to know any of them truly; as such, Hotel Mumbai is less of a narrative story than simply a very humanized depiction of a terrible event. Something like this doesn’t quite qualify as entertainment, but it is both gripping — and sobering. The fact that not all the characters the story singles out actually live to the end is a key element, underscoring an essential truth about senseless attacks. You don’t get to just choose to zero in on the “good” people who made it out alive.

And given the sensitivity of the material, Maras depicts the events with respect and tastefulness, showing violence in ways that effectively convey the horrors at hand without once even hinting at sensationalizing them. Regardless, it’s easy to see how it could be difficult for some to sit through. After the screening I attended, I walked past an evidently South Asian couple, the young man consoling the crying woman. Do they have some personal connection to this event? Are they just random, unusually sensitive audience members? Does it matter?

Apparently quite a lot of films have already been made about these 2008 Mumbai attacks. This happens to be the first one I ever saw, and its angle is the Taj Hotel staff and the sacrifices they made as they were stuck inside the hotel for hours, waiting for special forces to come from Delhi to this city otherwise defenseless against an attack of this magnitude.

And Hotel Mumbai is nothing if not consistent: an equal level of quality in every aspect of its production. It can be difficult to sit through, but at least from an outsider perspective, it seems to honor the many victims well, from the hotel staff to the guests to the local law enforcement who did their best with what little resources they had. It’s heartening, at least, to see that within a couple of years the Taj Hotel was rebuit, as the closing title cards state, “to its former glory.”

It’s a bit of an uncomfortable ride.

It’s a bit of an uncomfortable ride.

DUMBO

Directing: B-
Acting: C+
Writing: B-
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B
Special Effects: B

Trafficking in nostalgia is one thing, but how many people are even still around to feel nostalgic about the original Disney animated feature Dumbo, which came out seventy-eight years ago? Certainly there are some; even I, as a 42-year-old, watched that 1941 movie many times as a child. But was it my favorite? And now, consider people half my age now — themselves adults — and, more importantly, kids a quarter my age. They have no context for this as a longstanding intellectual property, and plenty will see the 2019 live-action Dumbo as their introduction to the character. What reason do they have to care? Not a whole lot, honestly.

And then we get to Tim Burton, the greatest director of the eighties and nineties, whose output in the 2000s was spotty at best, and who hasn’t given us a film even close to great since Sweeney Todd in 2007. That’s twelve years ago, if any of you are counting. Since then, he has phoned it in and cashed in with pretty much every project, even Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016) only hinting at the great works of his past.

One might think Tim Burton a perfect choice to direct the live-action remake of Dumbo, which, the few people still familiar with it probably remember, had some pretty dark elements to it. And to be fair, some of the nods to the original film here work very well, not least of which is the circus bubbles show that harkens back to the “Pink Elephants On Parade” sequence.

That said, a peculiar element of this iteration of Dumbo is how, more often than not, the countless nods to the original in its first half rather drag it down rather than lift it up; and it’s the second half, with original concepts that expand on the story, that actually won me over. I’m not sure it won me over enough to make me say anyone should rush out to see this movie in the theatre, but it did win me over.

The sad thing is, Dumbo succeeds in large part in spite of itself. Because it’s got a lot dragging it down, not least of which is a first quarter or so that struggles to be even interesting, let alone genuinely compelling. And I sure hope the two kids who star in this movie never see this review, because I don’t particularly want to hurt their feelings, but frankly, as actors, they suck. In fairness to the kids, the responsibility here ultimately lies on the director, who really wanted totally wooden and emotionless delivery from them, I guess?

There is also the script, the dialogue itself, to consider. Once was a time Tim Burton worked with script writers who gave his movies an eminently quotable, dark wit — and Dumbo, which could have soared on such strengths, has no such wit. It’s also nice to see familiar Burtonian faces: Michael Keaton an Danny DeVito are both working with Burton here for the fourth time; Eva Green for the third. Clearly there is deep affection among actors for Tim Burton as a director, and vice versa. It’s too bad not one of the perormances in Dumbo stands out in any way.

It’s Dumbo himself who is the standout here, an endlessly adorable and stunningly rendered CGI baby elephant who can fly thanks to his oversized ears. But when it comes to the special effects, there remains something oddly static about the rest of the effects shots in this movie, which it has in common with all Burton films to come out in the digital age. This is a man who truly excelled back in the days of practical effects, but when digital effects exploded, his skill level did not quite blossom in the same way.

And it kind of pains me to say these things, as I said for years Tim Burton was my favorite director. Is he still? He remains the best of the eighties and nineties, and even today, in spite of his recent frequency of missteps, I will literally see anything with his name attached. That’s about loyalty more than quality, sadly.

There’s just so much unrealized potential here. From the beginning of Dumbo, Danny Elfman’s characteristically wonderful score brings high hopes. We see the circus train on its way around the American South, and the front of the engine car is rendered with a grinning grill that gives it a design element reminiscent of The Nightmare Before Christmas. That is where this potential begins and ends, as we spend about half an hour struggling to find one thing a character says interesting.

It must be reiterated, though: Dumbo himself lights up the screen, and even without any actual lines — unlike the animated feature, none of the animals talk — he proves to be by far the most adorable and expressive character. This even includes the usually very expressive Colin Farrell, as the injured WWI veteran father of the aforementioned children. Eventually there are sequences of Dumbo flying under the Big Top in circus performances, and these scenes are genuinely exciting. The problem is just how long it takes to get there.

More of this please. The rest of the movie is . . . blah.

More of this please. The rest of the movie is . . . blah.

Overall: B-

GLORIA BELL

Directing: B+
Acting: B+
Writing: B+
Cinematography: A-
Editing: B+

Full disclosure: I did not realize until I sat down to write this review that Gloria Bell is director Sebastián Lelio’s English language remake of his own Chilean film from 2013, which got a U.S. run in 2014 and which I did not like. It’s a curious experience to re-read that review I wrote five years ago, describing a film virtually identical to this one but with different actors, and yet — this one, I actually liked.

I’d have to re-watch the original to truly jog my own memory about it, but one key difference seems to be the editing: one of my chief complaints about the original was its scenes that went on for minutes too long. That movie cocked in at an hour and 50 minutes and felt twenty minutes too long; this one is all of eight minutes shorter, and honestly it still could have worked better with maybe ten minutes shaved off — but, it undeniably works better regardless.

A key factor here could be nothing short of experience. I never made the connection until now, that Lelio also directed the very good film about Jewish lesbians, Disobedience (2017), as well as the truly excellent, semi-fantastical about a trans woman, A Fantastic Woman (2017) — which starred a trans woman, and garnered Lelio a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar last year. I am literally realizing only as I write this that Sebastián Lelio is a director who commands attention, someone whose films I should see just knowing he is the one making them.

It’s as though Lelio went on to make far better movies as practice before returning to Gloria to make it again, only this time he did a much better job. It would seem that not all critics agree with me — the crtitical consensus remains slightly higher for Gloria than for Gloria Bell (83 versus 80 on MetaCritic), and honestly, even now I find the score oddly high. Why do critics regard these as such bastions of excellent filmmaking?

When it comes to Gloria Bell, I would say it’s an example of very good filmmaking — a great showcase for Julianne Moore at the age of 58, to be sure, but realistically, how many people will mark this as one of her “great performances” in years to come? This is a very good movie that works very well in the context of its time, and that’s basically where it will stay.

As with Gloria before it, Gloria Bell begins with a series of scenes depicting a fairly mundane life of a woman divorced twelve years on, with two grown children with problems of their own who can’t be much bothered to notice her relatively lonely existence.

One thing that sticks out pretty early on, however, is Gloria’s agency as a character. She spends a lot of time going to clubs to go dancing (although, again, I wonder where these clubs packed with middle-aged dancers actually exist), which she loves to do and has zero self-consciousness about it. She repeatedly introduces herself to men, often making the first move. This is a woman not interested in wasting her time.

Soon enough, she catches the eye of a man, Arnold (John Turturro), and they embark on a relationship that basically establishes this film as a romance for the older set. Critics may love this movie, but it’s difficult to see it as a popular choice as a first date movie for young lovers. The trailer to Gloria Bell was edited to make it seem like a funnier movie than it really is; in reality, it has a subtle through line of melancholy to it. I won’t spoil anything, particularly a pretty satisfying move that Gloria makes in the end, but suffice it to say, Arnold does not turn out to be the greatest guy. I spent a lot of time rooting for her to just be rid of him once and for all.

I must mention, beyond all that, how great the cinematography is in this movie — everyone and everything is shot noticeably well, particularly Julianne Moore as the title character, who has never looked better. The movie itself acknowledges this, in a way, when a woman at the bar at the dance club asks her if she’s had work done, because she looks so great — and Gloria says she has not, and thanks the woman for being so complimentary.

Everyone looks great in this movie, though, which includes an impressive list of stars in supporting roles: Brad Garrett as Gloria’s ex-husband and Jeanne Tripplehorn as his current wife; Michael Cera as her son and Holland Taylor as her mother; Rita Wilson as one of her friends, and even Sean Astin in a stint as an evening fling so brief he barely has a couple of lines. One can only assume a lot of these actors were eager to work with the director of Disobedience and A Fantastic Woman; I can’t help but wonder how familiar any of them were with the original Gloria.

I’ll certainly give Sebastián Lelio this much: he’s come a long way in the past half decade, as he’s come back and remade a movie I didn’t really like into one that I rather did. The performances are great all around, and if nothing else, longtime fans of Julianne Moore should very much enjoy it as a mature, thoughtful romance that avoids cliché at every turn.

This might be going quite in the direction you think it is.

This might be going quite in the direction you think it is.

Overall: B+

Us

Directing: B+
Acting: A-
Writing: B
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B+

There is a lot riding on Us. A great deal of expectations have been heaped upon Us. It may be a challenge to fully understand Us. We must try to make sense of Us! Wait, what?

Here Jordan Peele offers the promising-if-flawed movie that should have been his debut, before he demonstrated with Get Out how ingenious he really can be. Instead, he wowed the world straight out of the gate two years ago, guaranteeing that no follow-up could ever quite stack up to it. And the thing is, had Us actually been his debut, Peele still would have established himself as a filmmaker to be reckoned with, who commanded attention.

It’s only because Get Out became a cultural touchstone, became part of the American zeitgeist, that comparisons are inevitable. The substance of that film went far deeper than Us, although this film has plenty of its own subtext. It just doesn’t make as much sense.

To put it plainly, both movies have stories that hinge on preposterous concepts. At the very least, ridiculous though it was, the revelation of “what’s going on” in Get Out made some sense. I left Us feeling like I didn’t quite get it. But, I sure did like the journey getting there. This is an unusual experience.

One of the many fascinating things about Us is its almost pointed avoidance of any kind of racial issues. There is not so much as an acknowledgment of the very existence of racism in the entire movie. This is a glaring departure from Get Out. Clearly, though, in the Us universe, people of different races exist. It just happens that the family of the protagonist is black. Jordan Peele’s metaphors, which get a little more obtuse here, are aimed far more broadly. When the “evil twin” counterparts of this four-member family is asked who they are, the response is simply, “We’re Americans.”

Until a period of exposition near the end, a monologue meant to explain where these people come from and why they exist that can best be described as, “Huh?”, Us as a movie is uniquely compelling. We first meet the lead character, Adelaide, as a little girl who wanders off and into a carnival fun house mirror attraction. Even before that, our first glimpse of her is a bit of clever camera work: 1986 television commercials on a TV screen, one of them for the “Hands Across America” benefit (this later becomes a key plot point), fade to black for a moment — and we see young Adelaide’s reflection.

Moving to the present day, Adelaide has grown up into a woman played incredibly by Lupita Nyong’o; she has a husband, Gabe (Black Panther’s Winston Duke); they have two children, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). They have come to a vacation house near the Santa Cruz beach of Adelaide’s youth, and after some establishing scenes to get to know this family, it’s not long at all before they are all under siege in their own house, by each of their doppelgangers, in an extended sequence that is uniquely creepy, if not outright terrifying. Given long sequences like this, Jordan Peele spends a lot of time in Us doing a lot with very few characters and actors — although a large amount of screen time does feature the same actors playing two parts in the same shot.

And this ultimately involves Adelaide and Gabe’s miserably married friends, played by Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker, who have a couple teenage daughters of their own. The action moves over to their house, where new surprises present themselves, and things get really bloody.

The performances, to a person, are excellent. In countless cases, this includes wildly different performances by the same actor — particularly the case with Lupita Nyong’o, who gets the most screen time. It was not too long ago that any movie with this very same story would have featured a white family by default, and the protagonist absolutely would have been the dad. One great thing about Us is how casually it changes those trends. There is no particular political statement being made about it; this just happens to be a genre film — that being horror — in which, for instance, the protagonist just happens to be a woman. In fact, Gabe is kind of just a lovable dufus, a guy so square his teen daughter still rolls her eyes at him even in the midst of fighting off a murderous rampage.

That said, even as a much more straightforward genre film than Jordan Peel’s previous offering, Us is still more than just another horror movie. Its concept makes for some clever tag lines (“watch yourself”; “you are your own worst enemy”), and there are hints at something provocative under the surface. If Us has any real problem, it’s that its subtext never feels fully fleshed out. The intent there is always a bit cloudy.

Still, this is just a fantasy — albeit an especially dark fantasy, and an undeniably entertaining one. I tend to avoid horror films as a general rule, only occasionally making exceptions. In spite of what remains mystifying about it in the end, whatever exception anyone needs to make to see this movie, it’s worth doing. And if you’re already a horror fan? Frankly most horror films are so terrible that this one will shine as a beacon of high art.

Maybe not the most comforting mirror image.

Maybe not the most comforting mirror image.

Overall: B+

CAPTIVE STATE

Directing: C
Acting: B
Writing: C-
Cinematography: B-
Editing: C+
Special Effects: C

Usually when a movie is getting mixed reviews, I can pretty easily tell what it is the people who liked it saw in it. Not so with Captive State, which certainly made me feel like a captive, and that’s about as effective as I can call it. Is it possible half the people who saw this movie liked it on some level just because they have no taste? Or brains? Some people are happy to be entertained by anything that happens to move on a screen, after all.

This movie is all setup, and then . . . the end. Spoiler alert: after one hundred nine minutes, there is no payoff whatsoever. It’s the story of an insurgency of inner city human captives to an invading alien race, nine years after first contact, preparing to make their move. A move gets made, and then you find out that wasn’t really the move. Something much deeper and more intricate is going on! Before we get to see that, though — the credits roll.

I’d say that I have a lot of questions, except that I left this movie relieved that it was over and preferring not to keep thinking about it. It was just so boring. But, I suppose I have some space to fill here. I’ll share some of my questions.

What’s the point of this alien race only taking over all the major cities in the world? I mean, I know the global population is more and more urbanized as time goes on, but rural populations still exist. What are those people doing? Are they just living peaceful lives, but for an inability to contact family in the cities? Also, what about the farming infrastructure that feeds those in the cities? How do goods come and go?

Don’t get me wrong — plenty of movies are great even with massive plot holes. It’s rare that plot holes don’t exist. But the point of making the audience overlook them is to offer a story so compelling that you don’t care. Captive State is so tedious that I had no choice but to spend a lot of time thinking about these things.

During the opening credits, white text on black computer screen tells us what’s going on, the way society has been affected by this alien race taking over any and all government functions. “The gap between rich and poor has never been wider,” it says. How original.

Writer-director Rupert Wyatt, who brought us the objectively superior (but still just . . . fine) Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011, seems to be going for some kind of subtle social commentary here. He aims and misses. Hell, he barely aims. Only in very occasional moments does something relevant to such a concept get said or done. For instance, a detained teenager (Ashton Sanders, the best thing in this movie) tells a Chicago police officer (John Goodman, plainly just getting a paycheck) he wants a lawyer. The response is, “You and I both know those days are gone.” This exchange is in the trailer, clearly to suggest there is something more to this. Turns out there isn’t.

I went into Captive State knowing it woudn’t be great, but thinking I might still be entertained. I wanted it to have more thrills. It has none. It makes an extended attempt at suspense, which ultimately falls flat. I wanted to see more of the aliens, which have a pseudo-humanoid shape which can turn into countless spikes at will. The screen time of these creatures — or “roaches,” as the humans call them — clocks in easily under five minutes. The rare times they do appear onscreen, the lighting is always incredibly dim and the special effects are still noticeably substandard.

There’s a couple wide shots of downtown Chicago, downtown being the “zone” where humans aren’t allowed at all, only the aliens. No explanation for this is ever given, and it kind of defies logic. We are told humans are subjected to indentured servitude to help construct an “underground habitat” for them, but that’s it. The objective of the humans is always to “regroup” and “fight back.” It would be a lot easier to root for them if the impetus for this entire scenario actually made sense.

In short: I don’t get it. And I don’t care to.

This kid deserves to be in a better movie.

This kid deserves to be in a better movie.

Overall: C

GIANT LITTLE ONES

Directing: A-
Acting: A-
Writing: A
Cinematography: B+
Editing: A-

The more I think about Giant Little Ones, the more I decide I loved it. It’s the kind of movie that takes a minute to sink in, how pitch-perfect it was. It doesn’t exactly crackle with urgent energy onscreen; its sensibility is much more subtle than that. Its many nuances are what make it work so well.

I kind of wonder what the thought process was behind that title: Giant Little Ones — it tells you literally nothing. This is an incredibly fine-tuned story about confused responses to an innocent sexual act by adolescents, and some heavy consequences to those responses. All the kids are sixteen years old, by definition neither giant nor little. They’re young, sure; but hardly “little ones,” although the emotions they are dealing with are, certainly, giant to them.

The sexual act in question is pretty minor, and occurs between Franky and Ballas, who have been best friends since they were little. The scene is perfectly tasteful, showing nothing explicit whatsoever: for a few brief moments, after the boys have gone to bed together in a drunken stupor, quiet gasps and moans are heard from beneath a blanket, the top of which is all that’s seen onscreen. But this is a deliberate part of writer-director Keith Behrman’s narrative choices: when Ballas suddenly leaves Franky’s bedroom in a panic and Franky tries to convince him to stay, we have no idea what precisely happened. And in fact, word gets out about the incident, only it’s converted into a rumor that is ultimately untrue, and the truth of the matter effectively becomes a minor plot twist.

But it’s an effective one. There are also other characters that complicate matters, most of them other kids in Franky and Ballas’s lives. First there is Franky’s girlfriend Jess (Hailey Kittle), who serves an admittedly somewhat pointless plot distraction early on, as she complains about whether Franky is actually interested in her. But then, even after the incident between Franky and Ballas, Franky forges a connection, at least partly sexual, with Ballas’s sister Tash, who is in a fragile state as she still recovers a specific trauma all her own. All of this is not even to mention Franky’s divorced parents, played by a lovely Maria Bello as his mom and Twin Peaks’s Kyle McLachlan as his semi-estranged, gay dad.

All these details make Giant Little Ones sound inevitably over-complicated and heavy-handed, but with Behrman’s steady hand, all such pitfalls are seamlessly avoided, and the story unfolds organically, all of the characters coming across as authentically multi-dimensional characters. A huge amount of the credit there should be afforded the wonderfully expressive Josh Wiggins as the lead character of Franky — but a great deal also to Darren Mann as the tortured Ballas, and Taylor Hickson as his sister.

The greatness of Giant Little Ones is in its concurrent uniqueness and absolute relatability to contemporary audiences. This movie contains no cliché moments, no emotional “coming out” scenes; in fact, it’s relatively pointed in its refusal to define any character’s sexuality. Within the dialogue comes this great pearl of wisdom: “It sounds like you had a sexual experience with someone you really loved. It may be as simple as that.”

Furthermore, the as both Franky and Tash understand a specific truth Ballas is terrified to come to grips with, even though it would make things easier for themselves, they endure certain hardships just because they clearly understand that this truth is still not theirs to tell. It’s rare to see a depiction of teenagers, with all their inherent messiness, with such inherent integrity. There’s no question that at least some such kids exist, and it’s wonderful to see them get their due.

None of this is made explicit in the film, mind you — these are simply the conclusions I came to. Perhaps someone else would settle on a different point of view. That, really, is the beauty of such delicately executed nuance.

A close friendship complicated by ultimately normal adolescence.

A close friendship complicated by ultimately normal adolescence.

Overall: A-