Us Movie Review

Any fears of a sophomore slide are quickly dispelled by we the audience in Us, Jordan Peele’s follow-up to his blockbuster cultural milestone Get Out from 2017. That Oscar nominated debut defied genre. Yes, it was sort of a horror flick but it brought in a racial subtext that got crowds talking. I believe Get Out gets better with every viewing and I suspect this will too.

Us, in some respects, is more of a traditional fright fest in comparison to the auteur’s first feature. There’s more jump scares, and more overall freak out moments. Yet there’s a whole lot of allegorical treatment on (yes) race, but also class and the concept of nature vs. nurture. Peele’s second pic furthers the notion that he’s an immensely talented filmmaker with lots to say. Us also leaves more up for interpretation than Get Out. It’s messier and that’s not really a criticism.

Lupita Nyong’o is Adelaide, the matriarch of the Wilson family. She’s married to the slightly goofy Gabe (Winston Duke) with two young children Zora and Jason (Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex). We first meet Adelaide in flashback circa 1986 as a little girl accompanying her parents to the beach in Santa Cruz. She wanders into a funhouse where she encounters a hall of mirrors. Instead of only seeing her reflection, she encounters her scary doppelgänger. The event literally leaves her speechless for an extended period of time.

We flash forward to over three decades later with her brood and they’re vacationing at their lake house in the same area. She’s talking now and has tried her best to repress that childhood event. The family meets up with their wealthy, boozy, and snobby friends (Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker) at the same beach. Soon enough, Adelaide is unable to bury what happened in 1986.

It turns out that doppelgänger (named Red) is back and she brings along sadistic doubles of the whole family to terrorize them. Red (naturally also played by Nyong’o) speaks in a genuinely hair raising whisper. Referred to as The Tethered, the versions of Gabe and the two children are also creepy and with murder on their minds. This is the section of the film where the gory action kicks into overdrive.

Without spoiling the rest, Us goes about answering the questions of why characters have these bloodthirsty counterparts. It’s horror, it’s government conspiracy, it’s very funny at times. The use of music (from the terrific Mike Gioulakis score to inventive spins of classic hip hop hits “I Got 5 On It” and “F*** The Police”) is expertly placed.

Lupita Nyong’o, in her dual role, is terrific. Switching between a mom in protection mode of her rather normal family to a mom orchestrating that normal family’s demise, it’s quite a role to pull off and she certainly does. Actors in this genre rarely get awards attention and the Supporting Actress winner from 12 Years a Slave deserves it. Duke (and Moss and Heidecker) bring the comic relief.

In some respects, I look at Us as the Unbreakable for Peele if Get Out is his The Sixth Sense. Why the M. Night Shyamalan comparison? Sixth Sense was a massive hit that also nabbed a Best Picture nod. Unbreakable was his breathlessly awaited next movie. It was appreciated by some and confounded others by not being as easily accessible. Those same issues apply to Us. However, just as the reputation for Unbreakable grew with time, I suspect that will hold true for Peele’s second turn. I don’t know if I’d say Us quite matches the potency of Get Out, but I think it could on subsequent screenings. For my first viewing, it definitely provided a whole lot to appreciate as this director continues to show he’s a force behind the camera.

***1/2 (out of four)

Avengers: Endgame Movie Review

**There’s really no way to write a review of Avengers: Endgame without some minor spoilers. You may wish to read this post viewing…

The word “epic” can be overused by those who review movies like me, but it unquestionably applies to Avengers: Endgame. It’s epic in its running time (none of the other 21 MCU pics run three hours) and epic in the number of well-known thespians reprising their superhero and villain characters. It doesn’t seem feasible that so many characters could manage to coexist in this vast universe without seeming like a gimmick. If you happen to think predecessor Infinity War was overcrowded, you’ll get whiplash here. Truth be told, there are moments when this borders on playing like a greatest hits reel based on what’s preceded it during the last eleven years.

Yet Endgame figures out a rewarding way to stick the landing and honor the dozens of faces that we’ve spent billions of dollars visiting since 2008. At the conclusion of Infinity War, bad guy Thanos (Josh Brolin) had collected his precious Infinity Stones and decimated half the intergalactic population into dramatic looking dust particles. What’s left is mostly the core of the OG Avengers – Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). There’s others as Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper) is the sole surviving Guardian of the Galaxy. And we have the two notable characters that were MIA last summer – Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd).

One might think this whole saga might be about the original band and some newer friends taking on Thanos. You would be wrong. Endgame has plenty of time bending tricks up its endless story arch sleeves. The first is an unexpected resolution that comes very early. However, that climax is just a set-up to further complications.

This is indeed a time travel movie in which the screenwriters almost sheepishly concede the contrived nature of such a device. The survivors set upon a course of multiple back in time ways to retrieve the Stones and bring back their loved ones. It doesn’t happen overnight and the lengthy nature of the plan coming together provides funny and poignant moments. Tony is off the grid with his beloved Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) and a new addition. Bruce is in full Hulk mode, but kindler and gentler. Thor is rounder and drunkenly grappling with his losses. Hawkeye is a full-blown vigilante. When the gang revs up their figurative DeLoreans, it gives us a chance to revisit lots of MCU personnel. And it’s a LOT of former players. Some are genuinely surprising. During this lengthy stretch, the film walks a fine line of not devolving into nostalgic sugar shock amidst the action sequences. By the final act, it rises above it.

We know the battle scenes will be well choreographed and well-directed (with the Russo Brothers handling duties once again). The final one is rather jaw dropping with the mixing of so many known quantities. Thanos is one of the stronger villains in MCU history and he remains so here, though there’s nothing fresh to add about his character. His daughter Nebula (Karen Gillan), on the other hand, continues her evolution as a fine addition to the roster.

The comic relief comes more from Thor as opposed to Ant-Man or Rocket and Hemsworth is up to the task. Captain America and Black Widow are given their emotional moments that we’re invested in from their backstories. To this writer, it’s Tony who’s always been the damaged beating heart of this franchise. The Marvel Cinematic Universe simply wouldn’t exist as it is without Downey Jr.’s brilliant work. That’s never changed. The quality of the movies he’s appeared in has. His performance has always been fantastic. If we’re ranking, I would put Endgame as an overall experience just under the first Avengers in 2012 and Infinity War. I can’t promise that thinking about all the shifting time plot points might raise as many questions as answers. I won’t deny that its emotional payoff is real and we have Downey and an amazing group of technicians bringing these comics to life to thank for it.

***1/2 (out of four)

Oscar Watch – Avengers: Endgame

Last year, Marvel’s Black Panther became the first comic book pic to score a Best Picture nomination. While it didn’t win, it took home three gold trophies from its seven nods. This weekend, box office records are highly likely to break with the release of Avengers: Endgame. The 22nd MCU title had its review embargo lift hours ago… try to your best to avoid spoilers.

The verdict? A 98% Rotten Tomatoes score thus far. Some critics are going as far as saying it’s the best overall entry in the massive franchise. Others write ups, while positive, don’t go that far. One thing seems certain as Endgame is classified as an epic experience.

Could lightning strike two years in a row for Marvel with Academy voters? Here’s the advantage: this fourth Avengers saga is seen as the culmination of not just its three predecessors, but also the many other pictures MCU blockbusters over the past 11 years. That lifts its chances for recognition as Oscar could see this as an “atta boy” for the whole series.

That said, I’m doubtful. The first three Avengers flicks garnered a grand total of two nominations. The 2012 original and last year’s Infinity War both received Visual Effects nods. Neither won. The middle child (2015’s Age of Ultron) got no love. Last year, Disney was undoubtedly more focused on getting Black Panther recognition and they succeeded. In 2019, they could put together a more robust campaign for Endgame.

A third calling in Visual Effects is probably inevitable, but anything else from the Academy is questionable and maybe even doubtful. Yet I wouldn’t totally count out some Disney marketing campaign magic. My Oscar Watch posts will continue…

Us Box Office Prediction

Blogger’s Note (03/19/19): The upgrade has happened from $48.8 million to $56.8 million

Next weekend we will find out if lightning strikes again for director Jordan Peele with the release of Us. The horror pic is Peele’s eagerly awaited sophomore effort and follow-up to his 2017 debut Get Out. That film rode a cultural wave of excitement and critical raves that resulted in a Best Picture nomination and an Oscar for Peele for his original screenplay.

Perhaps not since M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable (his feature after The Sixth Sense) have we seen a movie that can sold mostly on “from the director of…”. Us centers on a family being terrorized by a brood that appears to be different versions of themselves. The cast includes Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss, and Tim Heidecker.

Any fears of a sophomore slump were eliminated this past weekend when Us screened at South by Southwest. Reviews are strong with 100% currently on Rotten Tomatoes. Get Out exceeded opening weekend projections two years ago when it made $33 million for its start and legged out considerably to $176 million.

Us doesn’t have the benefit of unknown expectations. Peele’s name and some seriously effective trailers have prognosticators thinking this will exceed the first weekend of Get Out. Whether it experiences the smallish declines from weekend to weekend is a better question as Us should be more front-loaded with its earnings.

I’ll say mid to high 40s is where this lands with $50 million certainly being a possibility.

Us opening weekend prediction: $56.8 million

Oscar Watch: Us

The South by Southwest festival is in full swing this weekend and the most eagerly awaited film premiere has occurred. That would be Us, Jordan Peele’s follow-up to 2017’s Get Out.  The horror thriller is out domestically on March 22.

Early reviews are quite encouraging as it currently stands at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. Could this follow in the footsteps of Peele’s debut effort? As you may recall, Get Out premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2017 to red-hot buzz. It would end up grossing $176 million stateside and garnering four Oscar nods, including Best Picture. Peele won the gold statue for Original Screenplay.

Initial consensus for Us suggests it’s scarier than Get Out, though some reviews don’t quite put it at the level of Peele’s first pic. I’ll say that if Us can resonate with audiences in a manner similar to Out, it could find itself in the Oscar conversation (especially Original Screenplay). And it might be worth keeping an eye on Lupita Nyong’o in lead actress as an outside possibility.

My Oscar Watch posts will continue…

2018: The Year of Ryan Coogler

To kick off my series on the people that made significant contributions in cinema for 2018, the first post is the easiest to choose from. In a year filled with many successful tales, Black Panther is undoubtedly THE story. The Marvel Cinematic Universe saga took a superhero not nearly as known as others and the result was a surprising and smashing record breaker.

The man behind it is Ryan Coogler. A 32-year-old Oakland native, Coogler made his directorial debut with 2013’s acclaimed Fruitvale Station. Two years later, he invigorated another franchise with Creed. And in February of this year, Panther was unleashed worldwide. With Chadwick Boseman in the title role, Michael B. Jordan as one of the MCU’s most memorable villains, and Lupita Nyong’o and Letitia Wright providing dynamic support, the film immediately struck a chord with moviegoers and critics. With a 97% Rotten Tomatoes score, Panther took in $700 million domestically at the box office.

Let us count the records, shall we? That’s the top hit of the year. It’s the third biggest domestic grosser of all time behind only Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Avatar. Obviously, that designation means it’s Marvel’s #1 earner. One year ago, if anyone had told you this would make more than Avengers: Infinity War (which followed a few weeks later), you wouldn’t have believed it.

For Coogler, he’s made the biggest comic book adaptation ever in a century filled with them. The sky is the limit for him as he’s likely being offered every tent pole project in sight. He’s already struck a deal to direct the Panther sequel. Additionally, this stands an excellent chance to be the first pic of its genre to receive a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars.

In 2018, Coogler made history by making the #1 picture ever directed by an African-American and introduced a hero already beloved by all. He’s an unquestionable entry in the people that mattered onscreen this year.

Avengers: Infinity War Movie Review

A decade into its multi-billion dollar cinematic universe, Avengers: Infinity War invites viewers to marvel at its gathering of superhero titans to fight another – a villain from planet Titan who reverses  one frequent MCU debit (a weak villain). It’s an experience that yields many positive results packed with the action and humor we’ve come to anticipate from the best of this franchise. This movie is massive and it feels that way. The 19th entry in the MCU that started with 2008’s Iron Man, here we have nearly all the significant characters from its catalog banding together. If you ever wondered how Thor (Chris Hemsworth) would get along with the Guardians of the Galaxy, the answer is humorously provided. How do the egos of Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) meld? You’re about to find out. What happens when the original Avengers and others pick up their weapons alongside Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) in Wakanda? Giddyup!

All of this runs the risk of Infinity War coming off as gimmicky, but it mostly doesn’t. That’s because directors Anthony and Joe Russo and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely do a remarkable job sticking these giants into the blender and creating something that goes down smooth. This is not necessarily a sequel to 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron or 2016’s Captain America: Civil War (essentially the third Avengers flick). Rather it’s a follow-up to almost every MCU title. It’s important to know what happened in the actual Avengers pics and Civil War, but I’d suggest having knowledge of the Guardians, Panther, and so on. Lucky for Disney and Marvel Studios, you probably do. The gathering of these comic book and box office behemoths leads Infinity War to often feel like the continuation of a long running TV serial – albeit one with huge stars and an unlimited budget.

What brings all the characters together is Thanos (Josh Brolin). He has the proportions of the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and a similar sized ambitions of world destruction. Thanos is hell-bent on collecting the Infinity Stones, six potent gems that would render him all-powerful and capable of wiping out populations of many galaxies. After the breakup of the Avengers in Civil War two years ago, it’s Thanos that causes Mr. Stark and Captain America (Chris Evans) to put their differences aside. Thus begins the jigsaw puzzle of matching up Guardians and Asgardian gods with Wakanda kings and mystical doctors and your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man (Tom Holland).

As you may recall, Thanos has history with one particular character – Gamora (Zoe Saldana). She’s his adopted daughter after he decimated her home planet when she was a little girl. For those who might have assumed the Guardians of the Galaxy would have a glorified cameo in this universe, that is certainly not the case. It’s Gamora’s backstory with Thanos that puts meat on his character’s bones and assists in making him one of the franchise’s best villains. Brolin, for his part, gives the performance his menacing all in crafting him.

Delving too far into what happens in Infinity War would feel like cheating in any review. Part of the fun here is discovering just how these dozens of heroes and villains coexist. Some general observations: Thor alongside Groot and Rocket is a joy, as is witnessing Groot as a bratty teen with its attention rooted to a video game device. The return to Wakanda and its whip smart inhabitants feels welcome just weeks after Panther’s stand-alone effort. And after 10 years of Tony Stark onscreen in numerous MCU titles, Downey Jr.’s portrayal of him is still as strong as ever. There’s never been a moment in the decade where it felt like Downey was slumming it. He’s the heart of this franchise.

The conclusion of Infinity War leaves a lot open for the sequel that will arrive next year. When the credits roll before the inevitable post-credits sequence, we witness something both powerful and perhaps not as powerful as it seems after careful thought (saying more would be a spoiler). There’s no doubt, however, that this comic book all-star game is a winner.

***1/2 (out of four)