Tuesday, April 23, 2024

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Granger at the Movies: ‘Us,’ ‘Birds of Passage,’ ‘Alita: Battle Angel’

By Susan Granger

Special to WestportNow

When you’re hot, you’re hot. Following his debut success with “Get Out” (2017), Jordan Peele’s new horror thriller “Us” has already grossed $70 million, tripling its $20 million budget.

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In 1986 at California’s Santa Cruz beachside amusement park, young Adelaide (Madison Curry), clutching a candied apple, has a terrifying experience after wandering into an eerie ‘funhouse of mirrors.’ It’s so traumatic that she’s never discussed it — with anyone.

Cut to the present, when vacationing Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), her husband Gabe Wilson (Winston Duke), teenage daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and young son Jason (Evan Alex) wind up at the same beachside amusement park.

Back home that night, a menacing family of four, clad in red jumpsuits and carrying huge scissors, suddenly appear in their driveway, trapping the Wilsons inside. It turns out they’re the Wilsons’ zombielike, tethered doppelgängers.

Adelaide’s covetous twin and the others have come to untether themselves. Fleeing to the home of friends/neighbors (Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker) only causes more brutal carnage.

The twists and turns continue to an ultimate ‘reveal,’ the creepiness enhanced as the line between music and sound effects gets blurred.

Fond of sinister Biblical references, Peele features a homeless man holding a sign: “Jeremiah 11:11,” referring to an Old Testament passage about a covenant between God and the people of Israel, perhaps connecting to the clones that reside in tunnels underneath Earth’s surface.

Inspired by the suspenseful “Mirror Image” episode of the “Twilight Zone” TV series, writer/director/producer Jordan Peele notes, “I realized I’d never seen a horror picture where there’s an African-American family at the center, and it’s not about race. After you get over the initial realization that you’re watching a black family, you’re just watching people.”

“I feel like it proves a very valid and different point than ‘Get Out,’ which is: not everything is about race,” Peele goes on. “‘Get Out’ proved that everything is about race. Now, I’ve proved both points!”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Us” is an insidious, unsettling 8. It’s nightmarish.

Colombia’s submission for the Foreign Language Oscar, “Birds of Passage” refutes the stereotypical depiction of that country’s drug trade, particularly on shows like Netfix’s popular “Narcos.”

Instead, filmmakers Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra (“Embrace the Serpent”) focus on the chaos and carnage caused by American “hippie” Peace Corps workers who smuggle marijuana in the 1970s. Their desire of cannabis exploits a rural Wayuu tribe whose ancient values and traditions are devastated by what came to be known as the “Bonanaza Marimbera.”

Suspicious of outsiders, called “alijunas” or “the ones who do damage,” in the Wayuu world, dreams and reality intersect.

The linear narrative is structured in five installments, called “cantos.” Each takes place within the confines of the isolated, indigenous people, who speak an amalgam of Arawak and Spanish.

In the opening sequence, Zaida (Natalia Reyes) performs a traditional coming-of-age dance and is approached by Rapayet (Jose Acosta). Dismissed by her powerful mother, Ursula (Carmina Martinez), because he cannot pay her hefty dowry, Rapayet is determined to prove his worth.

With his trigger-happy buddy (Jhon Narvaez), Rapayet makes a deal with his cousin (Juan Martinez) who runs a huge mountain plantation. Time passes. Rahayet’s drug empire grows, along with his extended family, particularly Zayda’s lawlessly psychopathic younger brother (Greider Meza).

As Ursula prophetically says, “What’s hard is not making a family. It’s keeping it together.”

On the Granger Gauge, “Birds of Passage” is an epic, ethnographic 8, its vivid images relentlessly rich in social context.

In 2003, when James Cameron first announced his intention to adapt Yukito Kishiro’s cyberpunk manga “Alita: Battle Angel,” the popularity of the “Matrix” trilogy had catapulted cyberpunk into mainstream popularity. But that was shifted to a back burner when Cameron decided to focus on “Avatar.”

Eventually, Robert Rodiguez (“El Mariachi,” “Spy Kids,” “Sin City”) stepped in to take over directing chores on Cameron’s sci-fi action/fantasy concept — with sumptuous visual effects, courtesy of Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital.

Set in 2563, 500 years in the dystopian future, on the dusty streets of Iron City, located under the flying city of Zalem, the story revolves around Alita (Rosa Salazar), a starkly stylized cyborg with oversized eyes, a human brain and a tiny-waisted, Barbie-shaped body.

Like Dr. Frankenstein’s legendary monster, Alita was assembled by Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) from discarded parts of half-human cyborgs and named after his late daughter.

Although her brain is initially innocent, Alita gradually recalls battle-scarred memories. They serve to make her a ferocious teenager with instinctive combat skills which she channels into playing “Motorball,” a skull-cracking, gladiatorial sport which combines rollerblading with basketball.

Romance surfaces in the form of Hugo (Keean Johnson), a blandly generic, human robo-junk dealer who introduces Alita to the taste of chocolate: “We don’t belong anywhere, except together.”

Villainy is supplied by Ido’s arrogant ex-wife Chiren (Jennifer Connelly) and her sinister, manipulative sports mogul/lover Vector (Mahershala Ali). And then there’s the threat of monstrous Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley) who is hunting Alita.

To their credit, the filmmakers inject fascinating multicultural aspects, like Iron City’s street signs in Spanish/English and a street musician playing a double guitar with three arms.

Problem is: the ponderous script, which Cameron co-wrote with Jon Landau and Laeta Kalogridis, is exposition-heavy, uneven and devoid of humor, clunking toward an unsatisfying cliffhanger climax that’s a blatant set-up for franchise sequels.

On the Granger Gauge, “Alita: Battle Angel” is a frustrating 5 — saddled with chaotic action and undeniably creepy motion-capture.


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(Editor’s Note: Westport resident Susan Granger grew up in Hollywood, studied journalism with Pierre Salinger at Mills College, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with highest honors in journalism. In addition to writing for newspapers and magazines, she has been on radio/television as an anchorwoman and movie/drama critic for many years. See her reviews at www.susangranger.com.)

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