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

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

Roma Review

I didn’t hear anything about Roma until I heard everything about it. A foreign film directed by Alfonso Cuarón, Roma has been showered with praise by critics and received numerous awards, as well as several 2019 Academy Award nominations. As soon as Netflix acquired the rights and began distributing it, word of mouth began to spread. Roma was, in fact, the first film in over a year to be recommended to me, and not the other way around.

At first glance, Roma appears to be your garden-variety drama. Intelligent acting and social consciousness occupy the whole picture, but this is present in most Oscar-bait films. I was enjoying watching Roma but noticed nothing that warranted such high praise. How wrong I was.

The key to understanding Roma is to comprehend the history of Mexico during the 1970’s. Marked by political turmoil between an authoritarian government and leftist student protesters, the film depicts the infamous Corpus Christi massacre, where over one hundred people were killed.

The film rightfully centers around Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a live-in maid for a middle-class family in Mexico City, who embodies the experience of someone from that time period. Cleo is a likable, relatable character, and plays a tragically passive role in life. She’s thrust into bad situation after bad situation without a proper way of coping.

This all culminates in one of the more disturbing scenes I’ve seen in recent memory, the hospital. After a pregnant Cleo is rushed to the emergency room, we bear witness to an appalling and inhumane turn of events. The scene opens with a wide angle shot of an overcrowded waiting room, where hundreds of individuals await treatment. This part stuck with me, as the shot was composited in such a way that played to my fear of hospitals. It actually gave me anxiety just viewing the overcrowded conditions.

From here, we see Cleo taken immediately by the doctors, and we know something isn’t quite right. Tension has already been mounting as her water broke several hours prior, and at this point we fear the worst for Cleo. I won’t spoil what happens next for those who haven’t seen it, but I warn you for what follows. It’s gritty, blatant, and offensive to the eye, yet I found it all too difficult (and important) to look away.

Regarding another aspect of Roma, I came to respect the minimalist cinematography. The cleverness in the filmmaking and camerawork is often subtle, and therefore can go unnoticed if the viewer isn’t aware of such deliberate actions. The camera is always slow moving, often panning back and forth as the scene plays out. In considerably emotional or visually important scenes it will be placed in a far corner, in order to let the viewer soak in everything happening.

Roma paints an ugly picture of 1970’s Mexico, ridden with poverty, violence, and political tension. Yet, it gives off glimmers of hope for those living in what seems to be unfortunate and unbearable circumstances. Cleo has survived and conquered great adversity, and throughout the film she becomes a heroic, inspiring character prepared to deal with whatever life throws at her. For this reason, I was left with a bitter sweet feeling at the film’s conclusion. A feeling that gave me empathy for those in situations like Cleo, and the hope that a better life awaits them in the future.

The Verdict: A-

-Zachary Flint

Bumblebee Review: A Solid B!

I, like many, found the Michael Bay Transformers movies increasingly unbearable to watch. The first film started out as a so-so guilty pleasure.  The second dropped off completely and was boring and racist. The rest were history.

As fate would have it, another Transformers movie was produced less than a year after The Last Knight; a film that would act as a prequel to Bay’s entire franchise, titled Bumblebee. In actuality this film would go on to bear no resemblance to any of Michael Bay’s films, but it didn’t matter. The collective public groaned and rolled their eyes at the thought of another Transformers movie. They were already on a downward spiral in quality, with The Last Knight being an incoherent mess. How could Bumblebee be any better?

In a shocking twist of events, it can be better! Much better, actually.

Bumblebee takes the basic premise of the first Transformers movie, and shaves away all the fat that makes the plot bloated and boring. There’re bad robots (called Decepticons) chasing down the last of the good robots (called Autobots), who seek to regroup to retake their home planet Cybertron. One of the good robots (nicknamed Bumblebee) goes into hiding on Earth and eventually befriends an awkward, angsty kid named Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld). Together they build a unique friendship and cause mischief. It thankfully doesn’t get much more complicated than that.

From the minute the film starts, it’s evident that Bumblebee is doing its best to emulate the 80’s Transformers cartoon it’s originally based on. We’re immediately visually assaulted by an interplanetary war of robots, all of whom are fighting, shooting, calling for backup, the works. There’s little introduction to who, what, when, where, and why; and yet I found it easy to identify who was good and who was bad, just like any good kids show from the 80’s.

In the same vein I feel that these characters are easily identifiable with young kids/teens. Hailee Steinfeld is a likable actress who plays the part well, and Bumblebee’s antics play off her more temperamental personality in an amusing way.

And Bumblebee doesn’t just look like the Transformers show, because its style and feel are also similar. You can’t go five minutes without being reminded: This is a totally 80’s movie. Chock full of references to Elvis Costello, the Grenada conflict, and Ronald Reagan, Bumblebee lays on the pop culture quite heavily. The soundtrack is laced with songs from groups ranging from Tears for Fears to The Smiths, mostly songs that really exemplified the era.

Bumblebee goes so overboard in its 1980’s allusions that one can assume it was purposeful. The thought process being, make it so dated and cheesy that it inherently becomes charming. And for the most part, this method works! I found myself laughing a lot at the ridiculous teen stereotypes and cultural fads of the time (Remember Alf!).

It’s a shame that Bumblebee is even associated with the other Transformers films, because it’s really its own thing entirely. I’ve heard Bumblebee compared to The Iron Giant, which is a slight overexaggeration, but I think that mindset is on the right path.

Bumblebee is big blockbuster family fun with lots of adventure, action, and just a pinch of cleverness. Bumblebee‘s the kind of film you wish came out mid-summer and not in the middle of winter.

Yes, they play it safe in more ways than one (not to mention the numerous gaffs and other issues), but I found this excusable when looking at the broader scope of what this film is trying to accomplish. That is, making an entertaining Transformers movie that’s a little more thoughtful and faithful to the original show than previous attempts. That makes Bumblebee alright in my book.

The Verdict: B

-Zachary Flint

Die Hard (1988) Review

Picture this. An everyday guy, trapped in a skyscraper with foreign terrorists, thirty plus hostages (one being his wife), and inept law enforcement making a mess of the place.

Sound familiar? Of course it does, it’s Die Hard!

Even those who haven’t seen the 1988 action classic know the plot, because it’s been replicated time and time again by countless films that only manage to exist in its shadow. Films like Under Siege and White House Down mimic the style and setup of Die Hard but they both that the substance and emotion it brings to the table.

Really, Die Hard is an anomalous movie for me. Outward appearances would chalk it up to be a standard action picture of the 80’s, and not the pinnacle flick of the decade. There’re movies like Aliens, The Terminator and The Empire Strikes Back, yet Die Hard frequently ranks as number one. There’s a reason for that, and I think it starts with the characters.

One thing I’ve always loved about this movie was the villains, mostly because each is unique and memorable despite having minimal screen time and restricted dialogue. There’s the goofy tech guy drilling the vault, the Asian guy who awkwardly grabs the chocolate bar, and the two blonde European brothers with a bloodlust. Where the filmmakers could’ve easily just written in generic bad guys, they instead gave us something a little more.

And who could forget Alan Rickman’s role as Hans Gruber, the charmingly devious mastermind behind the heist. Clad in an expensive suit and tie, Gruber’s a tad cleverer than your average bear. His methodology comes across as sophisticated and complex, and when I first saw Die Hard, I thought his motives would be intricate. Yet, his master plan is quite the contrary, as he’s nothing more than a common thief looking for a big payout. What a villain.

And with that we’re left with John McClane. The badass. The hero. The everyman. There’s no better guy for the job than 1980’s Bruce Willis. With every memorable punch, gun shot, and one liner he makes, I just want to throw my fist in the air and shout machismo nonsense. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Predator, Willis is an emblem of the masculine hero archetype. But more importantly, he represents a flawed but morally just man willing to sidestep corrupt authority figures in the name of justice. Isn’t that something we all could get behind?

I’ve spent so much time writing about the many personalities that inhabit Die Hard that I didn’t even mention the wonderful writing and direction. The film takes all the right twists and turns, with several reveals that continue to up the ante over time.

One unique thing I’ve always noticed about Die Hard is John McClane’s deteriorating condition as the film progresses. He goes from perfect shape to beaten, battered, and bloodied. That’s something you don’t see even modern action flicks doing too often, and it’s interesting seeing the change in McClane over the span of the movie. Again, it calls back to how much work was put into making Bruce Willis’s character a relatable, tangible human.

You know, there’s an age-old debate about whether this is technically a Christmas movie, since it takes place on Christmas but doesn’t have that much to do with the holiday. While I remain on the “Pro-Christmas” side of things, I think the argument itself speaks to the degree at which people hold Die Hard. It’s pretty much universally held as an action masterpiece, and there aren’t many who criticize its status.

Die Hard is a yearly watch for me, and I recommend it become one for you too.

The Verdict: A

-Zachary Flint

The Grinch Review

Special Order 937 from Illumination Entertainment’s upper management:

“Priority one. Ensure return of cash profit. All creativity secondary. Audience expendable.”

If that Alien reference was to crass or obscure for you, let me clarify. I’m catching on to Illumination Entertainment’s (the makers of Despicable Me, Sing, etc.) business model of putting financial gain before creativity and filmmaking passion. They actively strive to meet the animation industries bare minimum requirements for a passable mainstream picture. The character models and backgrounds they use are cheaply rendered and don’t have a lot of detail, all to save a quick buck. Their stories are average and likely to go for cheap sentimentality to appear emotional and deep.

Case and point, The Grinch.

I’m sure you know the plot to this classic Dr. Seuss story. It takes place in the town of Whoville, inhabited by a group of jolly people that love the Christmas season. Yes, everyone loves Christmas, all except for the mean old Grinch (Benedict Cumberbatch) who lives atop a mountain with his pet dog Max. Harboring a hatred for all things Christmas, The Grinch devises a plan to steal Christmas by thieving the Who’s holiday gifts and possessions.

A fun, stylish children’s book that rejects consumerism and materialism around Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas! becomes a little more relevant with every passing year. This 2018 interpretation of The Grinch doesn’t take much of a stance on anything, and its reason for existing is questionable. Nothing added is new to the story and therefore is quite predictable and bland. It’s the cinematic equivalent to a rice cake. You eat it because it’s filling and not too unhealthy, but it’s still bland and not very tasty.

The Grinch himself isn’t very “grinchy”. He’s more just a slightly irritable jerk than the ultimate antithesis to Christmas joy. Less mean-spirited, more goofball. Heck, The Grinch smiles more than probably every other incarnation of The Grinch put together. I think Illumination did this so that his character would appeal more to young children, but in the Chuck Jones animated version The Grinch looks menacing, and kids love that TV special. And to top it all off, they had Benedict Cumberbatch voice him, which really baffled me. They thought, “Hey, Cumberbatch is a big star that audiences like, have him voice The Grinch!” The problem there is that he doesn’t fit the character well, completely wasting his acting ability.

It’s tragic because there’s some decent voice acting from very talented actors throughout The Grinch, including Cumberbatch. Rashida Jones, Kenan Thompson, and even Pharrell Williams (who provides the narration) lended their voices for the film. It’s too bad their roles in The Grinch didn’t allow them to utilize their unique acting abilities. All except maybe Kenan, who really gets to be vocally expressive in his role as an obnoxiously jolly individual.

Overall, I believe young children and parents may enjoy the bright colors and “in your face” slapstick humor, but the reality is that this film had so much potential to be something more. Illumination has the talent, money, and resources to pull off something exciting, something magical that is truly memorable for all the right reasons. But with films like The Grinch they play it safe, making a film that’s so sanitized and cautious that there isn’t a truly new idea in sight. And sooner or later their shortcuts are going to reflect in their box office revenue.

I’m fully aware that studio films must be made with a financial profit in mind. Period. But with animation companies like Disney, Laika and DreamWorks there’s at least some give and take with money vs creativity. They take some gambles and put their all into making something people won’t only want to see, but something they can come back to years later and still enjoy. Bottom line, a clear artistic vision is always present with these studios, even if the film isn’t very good. I still go back and watch movies like Coraline, Beauty and the Beast, and Shrek 2. Unfortunately, I can’t see myself going back to view Illumination’s The Grinch ever again.

The Verdict: C-

-Zachary Flint