Us Review (Symbolism and Hidden Meanings)

I vividly remember seeing Jordan Peele’s 2017 directorial debut Get Out in the worst theater conditions imaginable. A packed, sold out house of rambunctious patrons ready to get their scare on is my typical worst nightmare when trying to watch a suspenseful thriller. To my astonishment, both the crowd and film were a pleasant experience.

Having little knowledge of what I was in for, Get Out’s unique and eerie premise surprised me in more than one way, and ended up being among the greatest theatrical experiences I’ve ever had. People we’re naturally reacting to the humor and horror in genuine shock without coming across as obnoxious; effectively narrating the emotions everyone was already feeling.

I attempted to recreate the same experience with Jordan Peele’s latest horror film Us, going in without expectations of what was to happen. And in many aspects, Us was an even greater achievement than Get Out, as its true intentions/themes are shrouded in brilliant writing.

Us stars Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke as Adelaide and Gabe Wilson, a close-knit family on a beach vacation. The family trip goes awry when they find themselves stalked by soulless doppelgängers that go by “the Tethered”. Beings that look exactly like them but clad in red jumpsuits, the Tethered mimic their movements and desire to kill the Wilson’s before the night is over. The Wilson’s must stick together and fight for their lives as they try to outwit themselves and comprehend this frightening phenomenon.

Just like Get Out, Us is a highly entertaining movie with complex visuals and obvious double meanings and subtexts accompanying it. Even the most casual of viewers can see the writing on the walls, that Us goes a lot deeper than its terrifying premise.

To my understanding, the Tethered represent the stereotypical American citizen and how we are to conduct ourselves in society. The way we go about life putting on a facade of ourselves and never showing our true colors. Themes of family cohesion and flaky personalities are sprinkled in at key moments before the doppelgangers arrive, and by the films end we’re left asking how well we know our own family and what exactly it means to be human.

I feel this symbolism is displayed prominently by the Tethered all throughout the picture, particularly in their behavior. The men exhibit clichéd dad-like mannerisms (including moronic grunting sounds), the children are commanded to “go play”, and the mother is the family orchestrator/ leader that holds it together.

This message is driven home with multiple references to Hands Across America, the public charity event that had people linking arms across the U.S. to help end hunger and poverty. A rather flaky and unrealistically kindhearted event to reflect on. And Us uses it as a vessel to emphasize fakeness and class divides. A metaphor for mindless American facade and our unwillingness to show our true selves. At one point the leader of the Tethered directly states that they are soulless copies of humans. And when asked, “What are you?” she cleverly remarks, “We’re Americans.”

Several other themes crop up along the story too. Notice the constant imagery of rabbits as well, which often signifies rebirth or resurrection. They’re also coincidentally one of the most popularly cloned animals. I haven’t even mentioned the biblical allegories and references to Abraham and Jeremiah 11:11 that permeate throughout the picture.

My interpretations may be different than yours, in fact I expect them to be. But that just goes to show how multi-layered Us is, woven like a fine quilt. Hypotheses on deeper meanings and symbolism aside, Us is still an effectively terrifying movie from the inside out. As soon as the horrors commence, they keep you nerve-racked and suspicious of scares that could happen at any moment. The doppelgängers feel all-encompassing and powerful, like they could pop up at any second as a shadow in the background waiting to move (as they do on several occasions).

Us makes its heroes more intelligible than typical horror protagonists, as some modern flicks have done in attempts to kill that old trope. But what’s done differently is that some major horror clichés are still purposefully present, and the heroes wittily react to these in rather comedic ways. For example, one character must run back inside of a house for the keys to the car when she notices one of the previously dead doppelgängers is gone. The actress practically winks at the audience with how much a stereotypical horror situation she’s in. And her physical, badass response shows her comedic preparedness to deal with such a clichéd situation.

A story like this is only as strong as its actors, and Us boasts strong performances all across the board. Actors and actresses that bring some genuine humor and raw emotion to a strong script. Top that with the finely-tuned cinematography that’s full of rich imagery and the spine-chilling soundtrack prominently featured, Us turned out to be a Grade-A horror experience. And I’m incredibly thankful I got to see it in a packed theater.

The Verdict: A

-Zachary Flint

Dumbo (1941) Review

To fully review and understand a film like Dumbo, one must first preface with a bit of historical understanding of the art of animation during the 1940’s.

I say this because you can’t break down and analyze a classic kids movie like Dumbo the way people dissect modern animated flicks. With vicious fervor movies are torn to shreds on the basis of having too much or too little plot, thin characters, or outdated/ old-fashioned animation; calling into question what makes an animated film worthwhile in the first place. Dumbo clocks in at just over an hour, carries little plot or deep characterization, and doesn’t concern itself with moral complexities. Now it would be ridiculous to assert that Dumbo is or should be judged from a modern outlook, even though it hasn’t stopped many others from doing the same to other movies.

But, when we look at animated films with such a critically harsh lens, we allow ourselves to get into a mindset that may overlook a modern-day Dumbo. Films that have all the heart and dazzle of a masterpiece but are monetarily handicapped.

Everyone knows the story of Dumbo. It’s a sweet (but none too innocent) tale of a baby elephant born with ears that are a few sizes too big, resulting in rude taunting and the cruel nickname of Dumbo. The film takes us through several significant scenes in Dumbo’s childhood, all culminating into his remarkable, uplifting redemption.

Dumbo was released in the Golden Age of animation, where animators working directly with Walt himself were still testing the bounds of what could be visually and creatively accomplished onscreen. Only four years prior they graced the world with their groundbreaking, all-around stunning work of art Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Snow White was an instant hit and sparked a widespread fascination with the concept of full-length animated films.

Or so they thought. As misfortune would have it, Disney’s next animated features Pinocchio and Fantasia never received as much public interest. That, coupled with labor strikes and WWII, slashed the production budget for Dumbo down to a modest $950,000. In fact, Dumbo is still Disney’s cheapest full-length feature to date. This cheaper budget (and therefore simpler animation utilized) helped mold Dumbo into what we know it as today. The detail in the drawings isn’t as exhaustive or articulate, yet the bright and fun colors contribute to the circus setting of the film. The story itself couldn’t be very long, so Dumbo in turn values straightforwardness and conciseness.

Dumbo maintains the same charming simplicity of Snow White in its story, but the elegance and pacing of the stories structure is more attune to Pinocchio. Here we have a misfit protagonist who goes through a series of impactful, life-changing events. One moment Dumbo’s embarrassed, shamed, and made to look like a fool by all his circus mates. The next, he’s unintentionally getting drunk with a mouse and passing out in a tree. The morals of the story are clear and identifiable for young audiences, yet they can still resonate with an adult. Truly timeless.

The pink elephants on parade scene is probably the scene that sticks out in my mind as particularly memorable and visually provocative. Its a downright strange sequence to attempt to explain, and it’s presence in the film is welcomed but feels out of place. The weird, colorful, and psychedelic pachyderms dancing and singing across the screen has become a defining moment of the film that people seem to love reminiscing on.

I’m not even sure if I myself can fully respect the artistic freedom and creativity that Dumbo displays with such ease and wonder. It’s a shame Disney hadn’t the resources to fully experiment with this concept, but the film wouldn’t have turned into the beloved feature we’ve all come to love today.

The Verdict: A

-Zachary Flint

Five Feet Apart Review

Five Feet Apart starts off as a strong, competent look at the life of a young girl named Stella (Haley Lu Richardson) hospitalized with Cystic Fibrosis (an incurable, life-threatening disorder that causes the lungs to be filled with mucus). Despite her restricted life activities and reduced lifespan, she remains optimistic about life and its many possibilities.

An interesting premise that grabs your attention fast, but then quickly falls into the cliched territory of all other romantic films. It hits all the beats of your typical chick flick, the bad boy that the protagonist falls in love with, forbidden love, and an overblown ending that ignores logic and reason. I think the fact that the CF community has responded to Five Feet Apart with such mixed reactions is a perfect indicator of just how unusual this movie plays out.

Cole Sprouse is of course stuck playing the bad boy who just isn’t that into you, but over the progression of the film he learns to love. I can’t stand this type of character because you know exactly the transformation he’s going to go through. And due to this overused character and hackneyed writing, his acting suffers too.

The saving grace of Five Feet Apart is hands down Haley Lu Richardson, who gives a terrific performance that gives the film its only sliver of credibility. I wouldn’t mind seeing her in other films in the future, as she portrays CF with dignity, respect, and a sense of curiosity towards life.

Occasionally we get a real tender moment from Five Feet Apart, which is usually provided via Haley Lu Richardson, who manages to work through the clichéd cheese. I also felt the film had some neat camera angles thrown in there to spice things up (yet not nearly as frequently as needed). And, I’d dare say I learned a thing or two about the illness along the way.

But what this film is truly lacking is a deeper sense of purpose. The deeper meanings of life with terminal illness are only explored at a surface level, exchanging genuine emotion for a melodramatic and unrealistic love story. The same love story, in fact, that has been told countless times by many romantic chick flicks in years prior. They’ve always got the gimmick too, like the guy is a soldier or the couple both have cancer. Well, now they have Cystic Fibrosis.

And it isn’t enough just to use CF as some cheap hook to play at the vulnerable audience’s heartstrings, especially considering the unanswered questions and difficult situations Five Feet Apart digs up. This subject requires particular depth and care that the writers and director were unable to provide.

Watching Five Feet Apart may help you to sympathize with someone who has Cystic Fibrosis, but never truly empathize with them. We’re never given the opportunity to put ourselves in Stella or Will’s shoes, because the choices they make along the way are so corny, so manipulative, all forms of empathy are tragically thrown out the window.

The Verdict: D+

-Zachary Flint

Captain Marvel Review: A Fem’meh’nist Action Flick

The latest of Marvel’s films to be politicized to no end is their self-proclaimed magnum opus, feminist action film Captain Marvel. Like most Marvel releases, there’s been a certain level of buzz surrounding Captain Marvel since its production was first announced. We got a hint of what’s to come at the end of Avengers: Infinity Wars and immediately speculation went wild as to who the newest edition to the MCU was.

Speculation quickly turned to controversy, controversy turned to backlash, and suddenly we had Brie Larson getting pissed and people trolling/spamming Rotten Tomatoes with fake reviews. All of which turned out to be incredibly pointless and unnecessary because the film simply isn’t worth all the effort. Anybody telling you this is some agenda-filled feminist film or misandrist hit-piece is sorely mistaking. This is no victory for any activist group or political ideology, it’s just an average movie. 

The plot manages to be simple, yet somehow still complex. I honestly felt like I learned more about the character and the film’s inhabitants more in the promotional advertising than I did in the movie, but that’s neither here nor there. Brie Larson stars as, who else, Captain Marvel. She’s an extraterrestrial Kree warrior, whatever that means, and she’s stranded on Earth in 1995. While trying to end an intergalactic war between Kree and Skrull races, Captain Marvel begins experiencing vague memories of a past life as an Air Force pilot named Carol Danvers. She quickly recruits the help of the young Shield agent Nick Fury (Sam Jackson), who she hopes can help uncover the secrets of her past life on Earth.

This is the first film in a long time that I’ve had little opinion on, lacking any and all conviction to review it. It’s possibly because I found Captain Marvel to be as standard of a Marvel movie as I could imagine. There was nothing I found that stood out as terrible or amazing, just average. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a shoulder shrug.

Captain Marvel has all the fun things you’d expect in a Marvel film at this point, as well as all the mundane things we’ve come to associate with these pictures. There’s some 90’s nostalgia, fast-paced action in outer space, and a few twists and turns in the plot. Everything involving Nick Fury was awesome (especially the impressive CGI work on Sam Jackson), and we had some cool side characters that ended up accompanying or protagonists. Pretty much all par for the course at this point.

Brie Larson as Captain Marvel was entertaining and charming at times, but her acting occasionally came off as stiff and lacking emotions. I was completely torn on how I felt she acted in the movie, as her acting abilities between each scene could be best described as day and night. One moment she’ll be making witty banter in the middle of a fist fight, screaming back at the villains, and harassing Nick Fury in a pretty comical way. Other scenes she’ll just stand there with a blank, dispassionate look on her face as if maybe she forgot her line.

As origin stories go, Captain Marvel isn’t that special or exciting, especially when films like Spider-Man: Into the Multiverse are beginning to expand upon the typical formula.  Really, this is just the pregame for Avengers: Endgame, and only serves to inform us on how Captain Marvel fits into the bigger picture. If that’s enough for you (and you’re fine with seeing another superhero origin story), then by all means seek this flick out. If you’re someone whose grown tired of the average, middle-of-the-road superhero movies, there’s no need to rush out to the theater to witness it.

The Verdict: C

-Zachary Flint

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World Review

I’ve always been very vocal about my love of DreamWorks Animation, and their willingness to take chances on creative ideas that companies like Pixar would never consider doing. Films like Monsters vs. Aliens and Kung Fu Panda are bizarre concepts you’d think would fail miserably. Yet, both were highly praised and financially successful.

DreamWork’s release of How to Train Your Dragon in 2010 was, to me, their “play it safe” idea. Something fun and cute that didn’t stray away from past family movie formulas. That was the first movie. How to Train your Dragon 2 completely changed the game, when suddenly everything got a lot more adult and the plot started taking unexpected twists and turns. We saw wars, death, and a whole new group of characters to the mix.

The Hidden World is the delightful conclusion to this beloved trilogy, where we see Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) leading the people of Berk to new, unexplored territory. After new threats surface that challenge their peaceful dragon utopia, Hiccup and Toothless must search out a mythical hidden world for dragons. Upon this journey their destinies change forever when Toothless falls in love with a Light Fury, and Hiccup contemplates a potential life without Toothless. As our character’s priorities alter, they begin to learn what is most important and precious in life.

The Hidden World seemed to lack the storytelling prowess of How to Train Your Dragon 2. The second film was pretty ambitious in terms of ramping up the plot and keeping you at the edge of your seat, whereas The Hidden World tends to meander about more and is less focused. The Hidden World still ends on a positively strong note, albeit not as exciting or ambitious as its predecessor.

The main protagonists like Hiccup, Toothless, and Astrid all come full circle in terms of characterization and story arc. I’d be hard-pressed to find someone discontent with the direction these characters are taken and watching them develop throughout the flick is like a parent watching their children grow up.

Sadly, most of the side characters (particularly Gobber and Snotlout) seemed to stall out for the finale. The previous film saw everyone get more serious and change as characters, whereas in The Hidden World they seemed only to regress to the sole role of comedic fodder. They say some quippy lines here and there, but nothing impactful really happens to these individuals, which was a real shame. Heck, even the new characters introduced (like the new dastardly villain Grimmel and the female Light Fury) received a more well-rounded conclusion than those we started the series with.

It’s fascinating to watch DreamWork’s skill as an animation company unfold right before my eyes. There’s only a nine-year gap between the first How to Train Your Dragon and The Hidden World, and the level of artistry and competence continues to reach new heights. The attention to details in the animation is getting more finely tuned, and the beautiful landscapes continue to take my breath away. There’s one particularly mind-blowing shot of a gigantic waterfall that was so visually impressive and vivid that it could’ve easily been a video of a real waterfall, and I wouldn’t have known the difference.

Yes, this knack for innovation, moving forward, great writing, and trying new ideas is what makes DreamWorks and How to Train Your Dragon so wonderful. We’ve fallen in love with these characters, and now we get to say goodbye to them in a meaningful way. Fans of How to Train Your Dragon won’t be getting any major surprises this time around, but they’re sure to find the series conclusion to be heartwarming, satisfying, and well worth the wait.

The Verdict: B

-Zachary Flint

Alita: Battle Angel Review

Going into Alita: Battle Angel, I had no preconceived notion of what to expect, or what it was even about. All I saw in the previews was a wide-eyed, CGI girl kicking butt and taking no names, so I figured it was the perfect flick for me.

Alita: Battle Angel is based on a Japanese manga series Gunnm, and directed by a true filmmaker’s filmmaker, Robert Rodriguez (known for movies like Spy Kids and From Dusk till Dawn). Known for making his most awesome films on a modest budget, he often mixes practical (low cost) effects with computer imagery to get the results he wants. Alita‘s Hollywood blockbuster budget of 200 million is a welcomed, difficult change of pace for Rodriguez’s style. A change that ends up simultaneously working for and against Alita: Battle Angel.

Taking place hundreds of years into the future, after a massive interplanetary war left the world ravaged, we see the remaining people of Earth have come together and built Iron City. A multiculturally vast city with scrap metal and junk plentiful, above Iron City floats the mythical utopian city of Zalem, a place everyone dreams of travelling to.

The story focuses in on a cyber-doctor named Ido (Christoph Waltz), who finds a young Alita unconscious in a scrap yard. When Alita finally comes too, she has no recollection of her past self, only that she has a lust for combat. As Alita explores the new life she’s been given, Ido attempts to protect Alita from her inexplicable past life.

An incredible amount of time is spent building up this larger-than-life, post-apocalyptic world that Alita interacts with, and it’s a huge payoff for the audience. We see a diverse mixing pot of cultures interacting within the context of this cyberpunk society. Scenes are chock-full of what can only be described as “stuff”. Marketplaces, battle arenas, seedy underbellies, everything in Iron City is explored in-depth and beautifully brought to life.

Rodriguez knows his stuff when it comes to directing combat scenes, because Alita consistently shows off fluid and thrilling fight sequences throughout. Utilizing lots of CGI and high-flying acrobatics, the action is quick and to the point. Alita packs such a violent punch that I am surprised they held onto their PG-13 rating, especially considering that several people (humans and robots) get chopped in half. One guy even gets a severed hand in the eye, how brutal.

The acting could get a little wooden and hokey at times, but in a charming, Robert Rodriguez sort of way. In many respects Alita reminded me of Rodriguez’s film Spy Kids. It too got super silly, uncomfortably sentimental, and occasionally dropped off the uncanny valley. But both films have this indescribable sense of fun and wit that pulls the viewer in despite reservations.

Unfortunately, Alita gets to the point where it’s juggling too many characters, too much plot, and not enough time to satisfy the story. Before you know it, you’re halfway into the movie and suddenly they’re talking about newly revealed villains and random, unestablished plot threads. This is most painful in the final twenty minutes, where Rodriguez was clearly too preoccupied with setting up for sequels that he forgot to end Alita on a high note. Every major narrative thread is hurriedly wrapped up in the last couple of minutes, with barely enough content left open for another movie anyways.

The film even repeats itself several times in rapid succession. Without spoiling anything, something tragic happens to one of our lead protagonists, twice, within a span of five minutes. The first time it was emotional and sad, the second time I was so dumbfounded I couldn’t help but laugh.

And that was what stood out most for me while watching Alita: Battle Angel. Even when the film wasn’t making any sense, or the characters nosedived of the uncanny valley, I was still having a great time watching it. Just like the Spy Kids franchise, it has a unique charm and undeniable sense of excitement that can’t be artificially replicated. And it has some pretty badass action stuff too.

The Verdict: B-

-Zachary Flint

The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part Review: A Creative Flick for an Unenthusiastic Audience

Everything is awesome! Everything is cool when you’re part of a team! At least, it was in the first LEGO Movie

Now, things have changed drastically five years in the future, especially since the outer space invaders of LEGO DUPLO have taken over their home of Bricksburg. It seems the entire LEGO world has succumbed to bitterness, negativity, and chronic brooding. All except for Emmet (Chris Pratt) that is, who still maintains the same cheerfulness and optimism as he did in the first movie. But when Lucy (Elizabeth Banks), Batman (Will Arnett), and his other friends are kidnapped by those same LEGO invaders, Emmet embarks on an epic journey to unknown worlds that will test his maturity in this adult world.

The LEGO Movie 2 sports the same colorful animation as its predecessor, computer imagery that looks convincingly like stop motion minifigures. The details are magnificent, down to the light reflections and scratches of paint on our LEGO figure protagonists. CGI has come a long way for the animation to look so realistic that people actually think it’s the real deal, and I have enormous respect for those behind the scenes who’ve made that happen.

The same respect goes for The LEGO Movie 2 in general. Even the casual viewer can observe the effort put forth to make this a family fun experience. Take the extensive voice cast for example, which includes many A-list actors and actresses who lent their voice talent for the film. Mix this with self-aware humor and you’ve got some hilarious in-jokes about celebrities like Bruce Willis, who according to The LEGO Movie lives in an air duct. And after Die Hard 5, that’s probably not too far off! Yes, lots of talent went into trying to make this movie as enjoyable, humorous, and creative as possible.

And the honest truth is, I can’t say I’m surprised at The LEGO Movie 2‘s lack of box office success. With countless remakes, sequels, and reboots out, was anybody that pumped up about a follow up to The LEGO Movie?

The LEGO Movie 2 is big on creativity and imagination, and it has a positive message about being yourself and remaining optimistic worked in there too. But, a lot of this is just a retread of the first film, “been there done that” kind of material. I know kids and adults alike will undoubtedly adore the charm and positivity that this movie has to offer, but that’s if they’re even up to watching another LEGO flick to begin with. And so far, the consensus seems to be no.

The Verdict: B

-Zachary Flint