“Us” informs us, right at the start, that there are tunnels and caves deeply buried beneath the surface of the U.S., most of which have never been explored. Then, it opens on a scene of a little girl getting lost at an amusement park and wandering into an eerie house of horror peopled by not-quite-humans who could be the definition of creepy. We follow this little girl into adulthood and watch the family vacation she takes with her husband and two children as it slowly turns into a very dark nightmare, all connected to that long ago childhood trauma ... and, oh, yes, those tunnels. Written, directed and co-produced by Jordan Peele, it is clever and has unexpected plot turns, as did his previous work, “Get Out,” one of my favorite films of the past few years. It, too, was filled with surprises, starting out as a romance and evolving into a horror film; it was also a treatise on the fact that this country cannot escape the legacy of slavery and the damage it has done to African Americans. It built slowly and inevitably toward a horrific, fascinating, thoroughly satisfying ending.
“Us” doesn’t have the kind of topical, weighty theme the former film did. And though its main family is cast with black actors, it is color-blind; race has nothing to do with what happens, so Peele isn’t taking on the same issue, or any issue, really. That’s what the film lacks—a central idea that is strong enough to carry it. Also, there are some dead spots and monologues that go on too long. Still, Peele is a gifted filmmaker, the ending is satisfyingly chilling and it boasts another brilliant performance by Lupita Nyong’o in a dual role. She is reason enough to go to the theater and see for yourself.
I have written before that I must have a 15-year-old boy lurking somewhere in my psyche, because I’m drawn to films created from comic book heroes. They’re not all good films, and they usually rely too heavily on blowing things up rather than interesting characters and plot lines but, still, I’m a fan. And I loved “Shazam!,” sat there totally engrossed the entire time. It’s funnier and more gentle than the usual genre releases, but it has the requisite scary monsters, fun special effects and edge-of-your-seat tension. The story (excellent script by Henry Gayden) has a strong message about looking out for those you love as opposed to self-centered gratification. It revolves around an orphaned teenage boy who discovers that he becomes a grown-up superhero by saying the magic word (see the title), but who remains a kid inside, à la Tom Hanks in “Big.” The cast is excellent—Zachary Levi rocks the part of the superhero; same goes for Asher Angel as Billy Batson, the kid version. “Shazam!” is definitely a film for 15-year-olds, but might I suggest it’s also for grown-ups who haven’t seen their teen years in a very, very long time?
A few years ago, TV sets in Israel were all tuned to “Shtisal,” a show about an Orthodox Jewish family, including a recent widower, his charming but aimless son, his married daughter, his aging mother. Not only do we get a glimpse into a sect which rejects secular culture, has arranged marriages and has proscribed roles for everyone, but we get to see them as achingly real human beings: warm, funny, sad and imperfect. Netflix is streaming it now and it’s a huge hit here, too. Check it out. There are two seasons of 12 episodes each and I’m in the middle of season two. My opinions of some of the characters have changed since the beginning—beware initial impressions, right?—but the writing, the acting, the dilemma facing all the characters are so familiar and real as to transcend cultural or religious barriers. “Shtisal” is simply a really good show. Highly recommended.