Produced by: Jodi Matterson, Bruna Papandrea, Steve Hutensky, Keith Calder, Jessica Calder
Cast: Lupita Nyong’o, Alexander England, Kat Stewart, Diesel La Torraca, Josh Gad etc.
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
While I’m not a massive fan of awards ceremonies, I do check out the nominations for the big ones. The Academy Awards or ‘Oscars’ are obviously the most esteemed annual celebration of commercial filmmaking. But, they often get their nominations, from an artistic and diversity perspective, horrifically wrong. Of course, it’s a matter of opinion, but this year I do not know how Lupita Nyong’o was not nominated for her performances in Jordan Peele’s brilliant horror satire, Us (2019). She is now proving herself to be one of the best actresses around and definitely should have been nominated in the ‘Best Actress in a Leading Role’ category.
As well as Us (2019), Nyong’o also appeared in another horror film released last year called Little Monsters (2019). This one got away from me though because for some reason it did not get a major cinema release in the UK. Little Monsters (2019) is nowhere as imaginative, dark or intelligent as Jordan Peele’s searing exploration of duality, class, race and identity. However, as zombie-romance-comedies go it’s a lot of fun. Nyong’o portrays a likeable, professional and positive school teacher who, along with Alexander England’s failed musician loser, Dave, must protect a group of children from hordes of zombies on a school trip.
It’s an unpretentious, funny and gory comedy romp that owes a massive debt in tone and delivery to Shaun of the Dead (2004). Furthermore, stock genre conventions such as the slow zombies, ubiquitous military nuke ticking time bomb ending, loser character redemption and cute children who “think it’s all a game”, are all relied upon heavily. Nonetheless, the script is fast-paced, witty and has a lot of heart. The direction is effective, although there were probably too many songs in there as filler. Overall, this is a fun film with a brilliant turn by Josh Gad as foul-mouthed children’s TV presenter, and of course, the starry effervescence of ultra-talented, Lupita Nyong’o.
STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER (2019) – MOVIE REVIEW
Directed by: J.J. Abrams
Produced by: Kathleen Kennedy, J.J. Abrams, Michelle Rejwan
Screenplay/Story by: J.J. Abrams, Chris Terrio, Derek Connolly, Colin Trevorrow – based on characters created by George Lucas
Cast: Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Naomi Ackie, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Lupita Nyong’o, Keri Russell, Richard E. Grant etc.
Music by: John Williams
**SPOILER FREE REVIEW**
The J. J. Abrams directed Star Wars: The Force Awakens(2015) reboot broke not only the internet, but also box office records worldwide. It was a safe, entertaining and impressive spectacle which combined a mix of older characters we knew and loved, plus some bright young new things too. The action was breathtaking and brilliantly done, however, the story was a retread of A New Hope (1977) (with a female Luke), plus a series of glaring plot holes. Still, loads of action and great bad guys made this a fun blockbuster.
Director Rian Johnson’s, sequel Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) was, of course, another massive hit across the galaxy too. However, having watched it again recently, I felt it was racked with inconsistencies in tone and suffered weak storytelling. Indeed, the whole trilogy ground to a virtual standstill with Rey’s central story standing still and Poe and Finn’s mission proving to be a redundant decoy and wild goose chase rolled into one. Furthermore, I was shocked that a meta-filmmaker like Rian Johnson was given the Star Wars gig. To me, his filmmaking choices are too genre subversive and so it proved. Because, while The Last Jedi (2019) had some memorable moments, (mostly Adam Driver) and Luke’s emotionally charged arc, yet overall it failed as a Star Warsstory.
Thus, it was not surprising when genre specialist, J. J. Abrams, was brought back to save the trilogy with The Rise of Skywalker (2019). In returning to the safe, fast-paced, spectacular blockbuster style of The Force Awakens (2015), we may have lost idiosyncratic moments of character and humour, but at least this story has plot cohesion, punchy pay-offs and emotional impact. What The Rise of Skywalker (2019) also has is incredible visual set-pieces throughout. The J. J. Abrams led production army of special effects wizards have given us some memorable light-sabre and space battles. One in particular on the moon of Endor, that finds Kylo-Ren (Adam Driver) and Rey (Daisy Ridley) facing off, took my breath away.
Another major strength of this final episode is that Rey’s narrative arc is finally given the development it should have got in The Last Jedi (2017). Daisy Ridley’s performance too in this film is excellent. While she was a bit lightweight in the first two films, I felt she really came into her own here. This is helped by the revelation as to who her real parents were. Having said that, Abrams and his co-writers desperately scrabble around in the first hour of the film trying to set this up. At times the pace was too hectic. However, once it settled and all the flashbacks and back stories were in place, Rey’s character faces a very ominous choice. Conversely, her deadly psychic link with Kylo Ren continues to be a fascinating duel of mind, spirit and body. These developments are assisted by another compelling performance by Adam Driver. Kylo Ren’s internal struggle comes to the fore too, with a number of heart-pounding pay-offs at the end.
I’m also pleased to say that Poe (Oscar Isaac), Chewbacca, and Finn (John Boyega) are given a real meaty mission to get their teeth into. One that in fact links to the main story and themes of the whole film too. The standard plot McGuffin here is a Sith “wayfinder”, which the rebel team and Rey set out to recover. Let’s be honest, it’s no more than a “Treasure Hunt” plot structure, however, at least it allows for the more emotionally charged aspects of the story to develop and leads us perfectly to the incredible battle sequences in the final act. Moreover, plot predictability aside, there are other weaknesses in the film. I didn’t mind the CGI-driven rendition of Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), however, by the ninth episode in the franchise I felt maybe they’d waited too late to introduce new aspects of the Jedi mind-trickery. But, hey it worked well in the story and was so cool that you just accept ‘the force’ as is.
Ultimately, The Rise of Skywalker (2019) is a return to genre form following the idiosyncratic subversion of The Last Jedi (2017). In fact, it was so entertaining it is the most enjoyable one (excluding the prequels) of the new trilogy. Despite a rapid start to the narrative, which tries to recoup the ground lost by the prior film, once it finds a rhythm there are some amazing action set-pieces, impressively cinematic visuals and thrilling emotional moments. While it may adhere to cookie-cutter, franchise genre expectations, overall, The Rise of Skywalker (2019) is delivered with incredible force and made for perfect holiday blockbuster entertainment.
Produced by: Jason Blum, Ian Cooper, Sean McKittrick, Jordan Peele
Written by: Jordan Peele
Starring: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex etc.
Music: Michael Abels
Cinematography: Mike Gioulakis
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
Orson Welles is reportedly quoted as saying, “A movie in production is the greatest train set a boy could ever have.” Thus, Jordan Peele proves this point with an unstoppable cinematic train ride in Us (2019); that while threatening to career off the rails on occasions, proves to be a thrilling work of horror-meets-social-satire entertainment.
The film centres on an everyday normal family of four — the Wilsons: Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), Gabe (Winston Duke), and their two children — as they visit their summer home by the beach. Haunted by a scary incident in a hall of mirrors when a child, Adelaide is afraid to return to the beach where it occurred, until her husband’s goofy enthusiasm wins her over.
Events begin to turn and twist askew when their son, Jason, seems to go missing for a while. Even though he returns, paranoia and fear sneaks into Adelaide’s psyche. Things become even stranger when a mysterious family of four appear in the Wilsons’ drive in the dead of night. This is when the true face of horror surfaces and a pulsating home invasion and prolonged chase sequence ensues.
Peele has clearly seen a lot of horror films. As such the early scenes build tension perfectly with: stormy weather; a strange drifter with biblical sign haunting the boardwalk; creepy hall of mirrors; the choral soundtrack reminiscent of Rosemary’s Baby (1968); the son, Jason wearing a Jaws (1975) movie t-shirt; the flock of seagulls on the beach echoing Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963); and so it goes.
Such horror tropes build a huge wall of tension so effectively it’s almost a relief when released during the big doppelganger reveal. Subsequently, the blood-letting ensues in some meaty fights and exchanges involving weapons, such as: baseball bats, metal pokers, ornaments and golf clubs. The doppelgangers themselves are clearly a reflection of the self; twisted visions of humanity turning against the characters, as they literally become their own worst enemies.
The cast are expertly marshalled by Peele, as he gets doubly great performances from all the actors. The logistics of shooting doubles must have been tough, especially so many at a time. The featured cast are very good, notably Winston Duke as Gabe Wilson. He offers some light, comedic and physical humour amidst the gore. Meanwhile, Lupita Nyong’o steals the show in the dominant twin roles of Adelaide and the nefarious Red.
It’s Adelaide’s personal journey of double/split identity which provides the spine of the film. As she fights to save her family she must also literally battle the demon inside and outside herself. This thematic is the most powerful of the film for me, as Nyong’o’s acting is full of emotional resonance.
Perhaps, not as successful, when compared to Get Out, is the attempt to marry the personal conflict to the socio-political landscape. While Peele’s first film was an overt satire of slavery and white America oppression and exploitation, Us’ targets are intellectually more ambiguous and open to interpretation. I mean take your pick from: class, capitalism, consumerism, race, de-politicization, narcissism, over-population, split personalities, government conspiracies; and over-arching fear of ‘the other’.
These and many more themes are on Peele’s radar, as is his overall critique of the United States (U.S. = US – geddit!). That they don’t quite gel coherently is not a criticism but a positive indictment of his ambition. Conversely, while I felt the underlying power of Peele’s call-to-arms and desire for human unity in Us, one could argue the fire, smoke and mirrors of these ideas subtract from the power of the families’ personal struggle. Moreover, what is the solution to the government copying us or burying our doubles underground? Is it to kill the others and hold hands in unity? Who knows? What I can say is such naive idealism in horror has never been so entertaining.
After the success of the slavery-soul-swapping and genre bending thriller, Get Out, Jordan Peele has tasked himself with trying to top that fine movie. Well, if Get Out was the starter, Us is the main meal. In fact, one could argue the film is so full of ideas that it threatens to fail due to sensory overload. However, Peele is such a multi-talented storyteller he skilfully delivers, wholly thanks to great writing, masterful film production, an exceptional soundtrack and an incredible cast.