Us

Cast: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker

Director: Jordan Peele

Writer: Jordan Peele


Not long after Us was released Jordan Peele premiered his revival of The Twilight Zone. While the reception was somewhat mixed and the show’s quality tended to vary with each episode (which, to be fair, has almost always been the case with anthologies), it left no doubt in my mind that he is the 21st century successor to Rod Serling. First with Get Out and now his sophomore outing as a filmmaker, Peele has displayed a dazzling genius for counterpointing personal drama with surreal concepts, all in service of delivering a larger message about society and morality. While Us is categorically a different kind of film from the dark, racially-focused satire that Get Out was, there are parallels and contrasts that are worth observing. Both are films that delve into the tumultuous state of the American condition, both depict Kafkaesque nightmares that border on the paranormal, and both convey their narratives using the language of horror cinema. Where they differ the most is that Get Out had such an alarming clarity to its vision and themes whereas Us is a messier film that seems concerned with more abstract and intangible ideas than its predecessor, the nature of which are not as immediately apparent (which isn’t necessarily a weakness). Us is also more explicitly a horror than it is a comedy; the film is a frightening home invasion thriller with a sinister Invasion of the Body Snatchers twist in which we are revealed to be our own worst enemies.

Peele wastes no time in getting things started on as ominous a note as he can possibly conjure. The opening statement announces that “there are thousands of miles of tunnels beneath the continental U.S.” and that “many have no known purpose at all”. With that unsettling detail of a lost, mysterious chapter in recent American history, the film moves on to a scene in Santa Cruz in 1986. A little girl (Madison Curry) is on a day out with her family at the funfair, trying to enjoy the games and attractions while her parents bitterly bicker at every opportunity. She eventually wanders off while her Dad is distracted and happens upon an empty hall of mirrors by the stranded beach. The inside is dark and deserted enough that any kid would be creeped out by the warped and twisted reflections within, but the girl ends up seeing something far more disturbing. So disturbing, in fact, that we aren’t allowed a proper glimpse at this point. Peele instead shows us the little girl’s shocked, eye-widening reaction, then immediately cuts to the main titles, where the camera slowly zooms out from the image of a caged rabbit to reveal it as just one among many. What has actually happened and what does the strange text and imagery even mean? You’ll have to watch to find out. And even then you still might not have a clear answer.

The film picks up with a now grown-up Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) on holiday with her sweet lunk of a husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and their two children, bratty daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and oddball son Jason (Evan Alex). The Wilson family is bound for their lake house in Santa Cruz, where Adelaide had her distressing episode all those years ago, and the traumas of that memory are beginning to resurface. The summer house itself is pleasant enough and the other family members certainly enjoy themselves as they make for the beach with their wealthy and rather one-dimensional (intentionally so) friends Josh (Tim Heidecker) and Kitty Tyler (Elisabeth Moss), but Adelaide is far too apprehensive to relax with them. When Jason wanders off and Adelaide realises that they are within a stone’s throw of that same hall of mirrors, she erupts into a full-blown panic until her ingenuous son reappears, completely unharmed. That night Adelaide’s fears prove not to be unfounded when a family of four, identical to their own in almost every way, appears on their doorstep dressed in uniform red jumpsuits, wielding oversized, golden scissors, and scarcely making a move or even a sound. Who these people are, beyond being uncanny doppelgängers of the Wilsons, and exactly what they want is yet to be revealed, but the harm they intend on Adelaide and her family is immediately clear.

Each actor in this film must perform double duty, playing not only their given characters but also their respective doppelgängers. This point merits emphasis because the performances are so transformative you can scarcely believe that they come from the same individuals. Yet what makes the duality so disturbing is how closely each double reflects their counterpart like those warped funhouse mirrors. It’s Dr. Jekyll’s evil alter ago brought to terrifying life en masse; the ‘Tethered’, as they call themselves, are the living manifestations of our greatest insecurities, anxieties and fears. They are “us”, as Jason so rightly observes and, after living entire lifetimes of neglect and malnourishment, they’ve come to exact a vengeful reckoning. Each actor rises to the task of playing their twisted selves, Duke as a lumbering hulk, Joseph as a gleefully homicidal menace, and Alex as a rabid pyromaniac. Nyong’o meanwhile is performing on a whole other level as Red, the wrathfully calculating mother figure and the only one of the Tethered who can speak. Croaking her words in a deep, suffocated voice, she talks in fables and riddles of the bloody vendetta their people have come to wreak. Her deeply, agonisingly expressive deliveries and perverse body language are so eerie, so full of aching pathos while still remaining so inscrutable and otherworldly, that to call it a great performance seems inadequate. Nyong’o’s acting feat, both physical and emotional, is nothing short of superhuman.

There’s more going on here than psychological horror though. The allusions to all those forgotten tunnels beneath the ground, the recurring motif of the Bible verse Jeremiah 11:11 (a passage that promises divine punishment), and also the references to Hands Across America, a national, Reagan-era charity event where millions of people held hands across the breadth of the country to fight hunger and homelessness; there’s a political statement here that Peele is trying to make. It’s not an accident that the title Us also happens to be the acronym for United States. “We’re Americans”, says Red when asked who they are and it speaks to a larger truth beyond its most simple, literal sense (which is explained at length in the third act). They are an underclass; a marginalised, voiceless, forgotten many living in the shadows and the dark corners of the world. They embody our most violent and hateful impulses and they reflect an unsavoury, repellent side of history, society and culture that the human race has worked hard to bury so that they need never be confronted. They aren’t some foreign, alien threat who have conspired from afar to bring about the country’s doom nor are they mindless monsters moving without method or motive. They are “us”; the incarnation of our most destructive and detestable instincts and the greatest threat we face in the world today.

The idea that humanity is its own worst enemy is apt for a film where sometimes Peele is the victim of his own vision. While his skills as a horror director are as masterful as ever, Us is such a thematically dense film that it can sometimes feel like he’s lost his way as he attempts to tie all things together into a single, coherent whole. As everything between the Wilsons and their Tethered opposites come to a head and it starts to feel like the movie ought to start wrapping things up, the film keeps on going. We’re then treated to some exposition where many of our most pressing questions are given answers but, even then, the film keeps on going until it feels like Peele is trying too hard to make the metaphor work. It’s not that the ending is bad or that the point of it all gets completely lost, it’s more like the overall vision Peele has for this film isn’t as wholly realised and perfectly self-contained as it was in Get Out and it’s all he can do to keep the thematic house of cards he’s built from collapsing under the weight of its own convolutedness or the pressures of scrutiny. Again, this isn’t necessarily a fault with the film. In fact, there’s something about its imperfection that makes this film all the more terrifying; as if the reality of our lesser selves is as inescapable for those who made this film as it is for its characters.

★★★★★

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Black Panther

Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whittaker, Andy Serkis

Director: Ryan Coogler

Writers: Ryan Coogler, Joe Robert Cole


This is a groundbreaking film for Marvel, and for superhero movies in general, and it’s not just because Black Panther is the biggest, most expensive film to be written and directed by African-Americans and to feature a predominantly black cast. It is also the most politically ambitious film Marvel has ever produced as it seeks to speak openly about the struggles of black people, both historical and modern-day. There are obviously limits to what a film such as Black Panther can accomplish in this regard. It is a work of fiction that can only incorporate so much conflict in its two-hour runtime, it is an American production that, despite being set in Africa and drawing much inspiration from its culture, incorporates a decidedly Western viewpoint, and it is a mainstream blockbuster that cannot afford to make its politics too radical for fear of alienating audiences (including white ones). What the movie can do is reflect on the turmoil and experience of black people living in the world today and convey them in a personal and emotional way that speaks to the audience. That is exactly what Black Panther does and it works wonderfully.

The film is set in the fictional African nation of Wakanda, the home of the Earth’s only source of vibranium, the strongest metal known to man (it is the same metal used in Captain America’s shield). To protect themselves and the world at large from those who would use the metal and its immense power for destructive purposes, Wakanda has kept itself in isolation for centuries and today poses as a third-world nation with little to offer in trade. In truth Wakanda is the most technically advanced civilisation on the planet. There the people live in a metropolis of space-age skyscrapers, holographic computers and magnetically powered monorails. Culturally it is a society of an unmistakably African heritage. This is evident not just in the high-tech spears and shields used by the Wakandan army and their armoured rhinos (I don’t think I can emphasise this point enough: this movie has armoured rhinos!), it is also evident in the art, fashion, and architecture. It imagines a pure, utopian version of Africa that never saw the interference and devastation of European colonialism.

Following the death of King T’Chaka (John Kani) in Civil War, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) must assume his place both as king and as the Black Panther, the protector of Wakanda whose strength is enhanced by ingesting the Heart-Shaped Herb. Through the process of his inauguration as performed by Zuri (Forest Whitaker), a Wakandan elder and the people’s spiritual leader, we learn a few things about T’Challa. We learn that has great affection for his late father, his mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), and his kid sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) and that he still harbours a flame for his former girlfriend, Wakandan spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o). We learn that he is a strong but noble-hearted warrior, as we see when he emerges victorious in the ritual combat challenge for the throne and persuades his foe to yield rather than kill him as an example. We also learn that he feels a strong sense of duty to his people and nation and that his main priority as king will be to follow his father’s example and maintain the status quo. Thus, upon receiving word that the arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) has stolen a Wakandan artefact and intends to sell it, T’Challa, Nakia, and Okoye (Danai Gurira), the country’s greatest general, set out to South Korea to stop him.

The trio get there and learn that the deal is with CIA operative Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman). A series of chases and firefights results in the disruption of the deal, the escape of Klaue, and the grave injury of Ross. T’Challa decides not to pursue the arms dealer and instead takes Ross back with him to Wakanda, where they have the technology to heal him, thereby letting the CIA officer in on their secret as a technologically advanced civilisation. His decision is strongly opposed by many of his people, most notable his friend and head of security W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya). In the middle of the rift that emerges, Erik ‘Killmonger’ Stevens (Michael B. Jordan) enters the scene. A former black-ops soldier who more than earned his nickname, Killmonger reveals himself to be the son of T’Chaka’s brother N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown) who was killed in Oakland. He challenges T’Challa for the throne, which he sees as his birthright, making clear his intention to use Wakanda’s power and technology to unite their black brothers and sisters all over the world and lead them in a global revolution against their oppressors.

Killmonger falls under one of the most interesting categories of villains, those who are so sympathetic and relatable you could argue that they are not villains at all. At first Jordan wins you over with his swaggering charisma and playful viciousness, making Killmonger one of those villains you love to hate because the glee he gets from being evil is so infectious. But then we learn a bit more about him and the tragedy that shaped him into the man he is today. More importantly the movie takes his arc and creates parallels and contrasts between him and T’Challa, making them two sides of the same coin. They both live in the shadows of their fathers, both are driven by a desire to achieve something great, and both feel a strong sense of duty to their people. The difference is that T’Challa desires peace while Killmonger desires war. But it’s not as black and white as that. True, Wakanda has endured as a peaceful and prosperous nation and has kept the world safe from the harmful potentials of vibranium, but by isolating themselves from the rest of the world and failing to use their technology for the global good of mankind, they’ve been at best neglectful and at worst culpable in some of the world’s worst atrocities including the slave trade and the two world wars. That Coogler, Boseman, and Jordan are able to take this larger conflict and express it on such a personal level makes it all the more complex and compelling.

This movie isn’t just about T’Challa and Killmonger though, they have an entire ensemble supporting them with no less than three women who each deserve their own spotlight. There’s Nakia, the skilled fighter whose heart is more temperate than that of her ex and who teaches him that it is compassion and not strength that makes a great king. There’s Shuri, the child genius who is exactly the right amount of imaginative and reckless to invent the weapons and gadgets that T’Challa uses to fight and is just itching for the chance to use them herself (goodness knows what kind of mischief she’d get up to in Tony Stark’s lab). Best of all is Okoye. T’Challa may be the strongest warrior in Wakanda but even he wouldn’t disagree that Okoye is the fiercest. She is a soldier who serves Wakanda above all else, including her lover W’Kabi, and might very well have the most gripping arc of all. Sworn to defend the throne, whoever may sit on it, much of the drama hinges on whether she will uphold her oath to the death or whether her duty to her country compels her to rebel.

Visually, Black Panther is up there with Marvel’s best. Wakanda is a stunning realm of rich colours and imaginative designs, again all drawing heavily from African culture. (As someone who lived in Lagos for a few years, I can tell you that there is plenty of Nigeria to be found in the fashion, art, and accents). Coogler, who already proved in Creed that he knows how to shoot a great fight scene, keeps the combat small so that it never gets too cluttered, enabling him to keep things personal and intense. Even in the climax when things get a little bigger, his expert command over the geography of his scenes means that you never lose track of who is where at a given time. Add in the clearly defined progressions and turning points in the plots and the well established motivations and you have fight scenes that are all the more enjoyable because you know who everyone is, what they are doing, and why they are doing it.

And yet, even with all that going for it, it’s the social relevance that really makes Black Panther stand out. It offers a villain who stands as a symbol of black radicalism in opposition to white supremacy and, without endorsing its violent means and inescapably violent ends, allows us to understand and sympathise with the oppression and turmoil that drive this kind of rage. In the end the Wakandans do of course reject the path of revenge, but not in favour of a return to isolation. Instead they choose the path of compassion and improvement. Black Panther is a movie which acknowledges that times change and that what made sense and worked before may not be right anymore. The way forward then is to grow and change with the times and to try and create a better future. The alternative is Killmonger’s way and there are only two possible outcomes, either the hate destroys you or you become the very thing you want to destroy. T’Challa says it best in the line that speaks most directly to the world as it is today: “The wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers”. We need more movies like this.

★★★★★

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Cast: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie, Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern, Benicio del Toro

Director: Rian Johnson

Writer: Rian Johnson


The reception The Last Jedi has proven to be rather divisive, perhaps more so than even the prequels, and I must confess that I myself wasn’t sure what to make of it at first. In that kind of situation I think it is important to consider what exactly it is you expect of a film such as this going in. With The Force Awakens for example, with the prequel PTSD still making itself felt, I went in hoping to see a movie that looked, sounded, and felt like the Star Wars I loved as a child. If that meant playing it safe and recycling plot points from the previous movies then so be it because I walked out feeling elated in the way that only Star Wars can make me feel. This time, with my child-like faith now restored, I hoped to see a movie that would take more risks and would take the franchise in new directions. The Last Jedi did exactly that and it caught me completely off guard the first time I saw it. On the second viewing I loved it more than I loved The Force Awakens.

The film picks up immediately after Episode VII with what’s left of the Resistance, led by General Leia Organa (the dearly departed Carrie Fisher), fleeing the First Order. A counter-attack by Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) allows them a chance to escape, but Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and his fleet remain relentlessly hot on their trail. After an attack led (but not executed) by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) leaves his mother incapacitated, Leia’s command is assumed by Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern). Disapproving of her inactive strategy Poe, Finn (John Boyega), mechanic Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), and BB-8 concoct a plan to disable the device that allows the First Order to track their fleet through light speed. Meanwhile Rey (Daisy Ridley), having arrived on Ahch-To with Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and R2D2 in search of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), find him living there in a self-imposed exile, disillusioned by his own failures and with the teachings of the Jedi. It falls onto her to inspire Luke to complete her training and to help them save the Resistance from the wrath of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and the First Order before it’s too late.

Making a great sequel is a tricky thing, especially with an iconic property like Star Wars. It’s a matter of making things feel old and new at the same time; giving the audience what they want and also what they didn’t know they wanted. The Force Awakens did this by reviving a familiar story while throwing in new, compelling, likeable characters. The Last Jedi does this in a more challenging but ultimately more rewarding way. It harkens back to the past, sometimes nostalgically, sometimes humorously, and sometimes unsentimentally, and provides arcs for the characters that parallel what we’ve seen in the original trilogy, but it also builds on the new elements that were introduced in the prior instalment and allows the torch to be passed into the hands that promise to lead the franchise into an unfamiliar but promising future. The movie tackles themes of legacy and questions whether the past is something that we should allow to shape us and define us or if it is something that should be rejected so we may be allowed to decide our own futures. The answer, the film shows us, is somewhere in the middle and it is fascinating to see how the it gets there.

This is evident in Rey’s anguish over not knowing who her parents are and not knowing her place in the galaxy and in Kylo’s agony over destroying those for whom he cares in order to forge his own destiny, two arcs we get to see mirror each other wonderfully in the telepathic conversations they share. Both feel broken and lost and they find within each other the potential to overcome their past traumas and build a greater future for themselves (for light and for dark). Luke meanwhile, having already grown from a young and naïve dreamer to a learned and capable warrior, is now old, cynical and haunted by his past in a way that Rey can recognise but barely begin to understand. Hamill delivers one of the greatest performances in the epic saga’s decades-long history as a Luke who failed to live up to the promises of Return of the Jedi and has spent the years since punishing himself for it. The fulfilment of his arc at the end is moving and profound in a way that only a story told over several years with a reflective, poetic sense of theme and character can possibly be.

The film demonstrates far more interest in telling the story it wants to tell rather than playing to audience’s expectations (not least of which is its complete and total indifference for fan theories), and that can be understandably unfulfilling and even alienating for fans who deeply love this franchise and its characters. Those who love the hopeful ending to Return of the Jedi and the state of redemption and enlightenment that Luke is able to reach after all he’s been through might not be able to reconcile themselves with this disheartened, pessimistic Luke whose triumphs were defeated by his own failures. But if we truly want Star Wars to continue and evolve as a franchise, we must necessarily open ourselves to ideas and directions that go against our expectations, whether or not we ultimately agree with and embrace the road taken. Personally, I found the direction taken by The Last Jedi to be not only great but also true to the spirit of the franchise and to the characters in it.

The debate over whether The Last Jedi is the best or worst movie in the Star Wars canon is one that will continue to rage many, many years after we’re all dead, buried, and forgotten, but everyone can surely agree that this is the most visually stunning Star Wars movie ever crafted. The set-pieces we see such as Snoke’s throne room, dominated by a shade of red so dreadful and sinister it could’ve been lifted straight out of a Roger Corman film, or the climatic battle on the salt planet, where the white surface is brushed aside to reveal an under-layer of crimson, almost as if the planet itself were bleeding, are masterpieces of colour and composition. Another visual highlight involves a starship going into hyperspace in a way that is as blindingly striking as it is emotionally powerful (and it involves a character we only just met!). Johnson, in my eyes, has secured this movie’s position as the best directed Star Wars movie in the series not just for his inspired visual realisation but for how he handles the story as well. Using the lessons he presumably learned from his tenure on Breaking Bad, he unravels the story with the confidence of a director who trusts that the different plot threads will come together and that everything that has been set up will come through, even when it appears the movie has seemingly miscalculated and leads us down a worrisome path. It all pays off in the end and is all the more powerful for having been doubted by us in the first place.

There are imperfections, as there always have been with Star Wars. The quest undertaken by Finn and Rose feels like more of an aside than it does a major part of the plot (even if it does ultimately get them where they need to be by the time we reach the climax), there is an early scene involving Leia that I’m still not sure how to feel about considering her untimely death, and the resolution to the conflict between Poe and Holdo doesn’t really make much sense. However, after the film’s marvellous work of character development done with Rey, Kylo and Luke, the bold story, the stupendous action, the sharp sense of humour, and all the emotionally overwhelming moments that follow, I’d have been willing to forgive a lot more. This is a movie that fulfils the promise of taking this universe into uncharted waters, expanding on the mythology in unprecedented ways, and bringing a beloved chapter of this franchise to a satisfying close so that we might follow it into a promising and exciting future. It is also an enormously thrilling, funny, moving film that delivers all a Star Wars fan could possibly want and more. As I beheld the image of a sunset that recalled Luke’s last night on Tatooine before the start of his great adventure, I felt that same sense of wonder, sensation and awe that makes Star Wars so special.

★★★★★