Jordan Peele’s “US” is A Terrifying Hall of Mirrors

Mirrors have been a tool in the horror genre since its inception. I think of the shattered mirror in Carrie as she gets ready for the prom, the REDRUM laden mirror in The Shining and more recently the sinister, inescapable reflections terrorizing Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan. Just like those movies, Jordan Peele’s US uses the mirror (literal and figurative) to send a message to his audience. 

Our story begins in 1986 Santa Cruz. Young Adelaide (Madison Curry) is celebrating her birthday with her parents (Anna Diop and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) on the boardwalk. After her father has won her a “Thriller” t-shirt, he starts playing Whack a Mole as her mother makes her way to the bathroom. Adelaide wanders off to the beach as her father becomes more engrossed with his game, finding herself in a funhouse hall of mirrors. As she makes her way deeper into the maze, she becomes unsettled and tries to makes her way to the exit but bumps into a mirror wall and realizes what she saw was merely a reflection. As she backs away and tries to calm down, she turns around and sees something so terrifying that it registers as pure horror across her face. The screen cuts to black before we get to see what it was that scared her so deeply. 

Fast forward to present day. Adelaide (now played by Lupita Nyong’o) is on her way to her summer house along with her husband (Winston Duke) and two kids: daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and son Jason (Evan Alex). When it’s announced the family will be headed to the very beach she went to as a child Adelaide stiffens, refusing at first before conceding to her husband’s wishes. We see through flashbacks that whatever she saw that night in the funhouse scarred her so deeply that it forced her into silence. Later, she overheard a conversation between a child psychologist and her parents that the symptoms she had been exhibiting since the incident in the funhouse were similar to PTSD. 

“She wasn’t in ‘Nam,” her father says, insisting that she wasn’t even alone for that long, before her mother jumps in and reminds him that “You don’t know what she saw.” We, the audience don’t know either, but whatever it was it’s still lingering. Nyong’o’s performance is extremely committed from the very beginning; though there’s gaps in our understanding of Adelaide’s journey from childhood to adulthood, she fills in the blanks effectively enough to convey to the audience that whatever happened to her is deeply unsettling; we can feel her anxiety skyrocket as the family car nears closer and closer to the beach (but more on that later). 

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It isn’t long before the action begins: as the family gets ready to turn in for the evening, they notice what looks like a group of people standing in their drive way. The mysterious figures make their way into the house (by force) and settle in front of the fireplace as the Wilsons look on in horror. “It’s us” Jason astutely states as one of them lights a fire, revealing their faces. Each family member has their own doppelgänger, one more terrifying than the next, donning a red jumpsuit, gloves and a pair of menacing scissors. They’re led by Adelaide’s double, named Red, who is the only member who seems to know English. She speaks in an extremely hoarse voice as if she’s just been strangled to within an inch of her life. When asked who they are, she chuckles. We’re Americans.” 

Red regales the family with a fairy tale of a princess born in the light, who enjoyed the finest of everything while her shadow suffered and ate “raw rabbit.” It doesn’t take long for us to decipher she’s talking about herself and Adelaide, who is so terrified she’s sweating bullets, unable to speak just like that night in the funhouse. Red belongs to a class of people called “The Tethered,” a group of people living underground in an abandoned system of tunnels, forced to imitate and repeat the actions of their near-clones living above ground. But Red’s arrival signals the end of that era; The Tethered have had enough, and now it’s their time to live in the light and enjoy the finer things. 

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So, what does it all mean exactly? Peele must have something to say, right? Well, it’s about us (no pun intended). “It’s about us,” he explained at the SXSW premiere, “looking at ourselves as individuals and as a group. The protagonist in the movie is the surrogate for the audience, so it felt like at the end of the day, I wasn’t doing my core theme any justice if I wasn’t revealing that we have been the bad guy in this movie.”

I’m not going to spoil anything beyond that, because much of the film’s magic comes from watching Peele place the pieces down until they coalesce into an unsettling puzzle. But Us is not Get Out part two. Get Out was a lean, 104 minutes long; each moment felt perfectly utilized in service of Peele’s message about race in America. Though only a few minutes longer, Us does feel a bit more padded and has more ideas swirling around the overall message. Where Get Out offered a clear, finite resolution in its story, Us leaves questions unanswered and anxieties unquelled. In the week since its release, there have been many who feel not everything works and the meaning behind the madness feels convoluted. I wouldn’t say those qualms are wrong, there are definitely moments where it felt like Peele was starting to trip over the wires he laid down, but they just didn’t spoil my enjoyment. It’s not wrong to recognize that Get Out is stronger as a film, but Us is still an audacious achievement, especially considering that it’s only Peele’s second film as a director. He has mentioned in numerous interviews that with this film, he wanted to do something completely different. This is unmistakably a Jordan Peele film, though entirely different from his breakout. I can respect his attempt to paving new ground while still staying true to his strengths as a storyteller.

Even if you find Us to be frustrating narratively, one thing everyone can agree on is Lupita Nyong’o’s performances as both Adelaide and Red that are the film’s crowning achievements.  This should come as no surprise to anyone; Nyong’o is a classically trained actress who won an Academy Award for her debut performance as Patsey in 12 Years A Slave. She beat out the scenery chewing (and microwave exploding) Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle, which was something of a miracle. Though not the focus of the film, Nyong’o made use of her very limited screen time to create a fully realized character. It’s rare that a Supporting Actress contender is actually a supporting character, and not just a lead being campaigned otherwise for the sake of nailing a nomination. Nyong’o gives a largely silent performance, relying mostly on her eyes. When Patsey does get the chance to speak, Nyong’o delivers a monologue so undeniably powerful it makes you forget this is her first big screen role. It is seared in my memory.

After winning the Oscar, Nyong’o did not enjoy the same sort of post-Oscar success offered to white, breakout ingenues such as Alicia Vikander or her fellow-Best Supporting Actress nominee Lawrence. She did appear in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, though as a CGI character and earned a Tony nomination for her work in Eclipsed but her Silver Linings Playbook or Tomb Raider reboot never came. It wouldn’t be until 2018’s Black Panther that Nyong’o appeared in the type of big budget studio film we associate with Oscar winners, though the lead of that film is inarguably Chadwick Boseman. Nyong’o is great as Nakia, but she is not the focal point. Us is the first time Nyong’o is the main attraction, and she doesn’t just carry the film on her back, she runs away with the whole thing. As she did with Patsey, Nyong’o silently traces a roadmap of these two women and their respective traumas. There is more exposition, but she leans into mannerisms and vocal affectations to really sell it, holding just enough back to pull the rug out from under out feet by the end. If you’ve seen the film, you know what I’m talking about. It’s a masterclass in acting by an actress who has finally been given the role of a lifetime. 

Regardless of where you land on Us, you cannot deny that once again Jordan Peele has got us talking. And while many have been fixated on the ‘what, why and how’ of it all, the dissent of opinion has been more fascinating to me than any concrete answer. It’s not very often that a piece of mainstream filmmaking is this fascinating, even rarer that a non-franchise film feels like a true event. Us is a piece of art that will be analyzed and studied for years to come. It’s a terrifying hall of mirrors. What do you see? The answer may haunt you. 

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Grade: A

Academy Award Predictions: Roma vs. Green Book vs. Black Panther?

All good things must come to an end, though based on your personal opinions this awards season may not have been a good thing. Films came and went (First ManMary Poppins ReturnsFirst Reformed) and others (Bohemian Rhapsody, Green BookThe Favourite) stayed to varying degrees of anger or pleasure. A Star Is Born kicked off the season as the de-facto frontrunner and fumbled when things started to get competitive; it hasn’t been able to regain any of the lost momentum as the season has drummed along. 

Roma has seemingly taken its place, but there’s still a bunch of uncertainty swirling around its chances as an actual winner. With wins at the Golden Globes, the PGA and TIFF’s People’s Choice Award, Green Book is seemingly next in line despite a ton of controversy and valid criticisms against the film. Also not a stranger to controversy, Bohemian Rhapsody‘s success both financially and awards wise despite it being a terrible film continues to confound even the most tenured Oscar watchers. Do people really love Queen that much? Evidently, yes. The heat around Vice was extinguished the moment the embargo was let up. Eight nominations is nothing to balk at, but nobody seems to be rushing to give this Frankenstein of a movie any awards. There seems to be a lot of love for The Favourite, but it doesn’t sound like it translates into the widespread kind of love needed to succeed on the preferential ballot. 

And then there’s Black Panther, which has both the box office receipts, critical acclaim to and a SAG ensemble win that makes it a worthy Best Picture winner. But a disappointing nomination count, despite a win at the Screen Actors Guild, is giving me pause from thinking it’s as big of a threat as the other aforementioned films. 

With each film having their own list of pro’s and con’s, it feels like a huge toss up in predicting who will win. Nevertheless, I take a stab at it below. 

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The Best Movies of 2018

2018  was one of the most grueling experiences in recent memory and as a result I’ve unfortunately been neglecting this blog. It was something that used to give me a lot of joy, and through personal and professional setbacks I have to admit that finding the drive to do anything outside of my day to day demands has been seemingly impossible. But one thing that has continued to give me joy, however, has been film. Without film and escapism, I’m not sure I would have made it through such an emotionally taxing year. Like a warm hug on the coldest, most bitter day, I knew I could always just take myself to the movies and forget my troubles for a few hours. I feel like I say that every year, but it has not stopped being true. 

Recently I’ve been re-discovering the joy in things I had thought I had lost, writing being one of them. It’s a chore I’ve avoided for too long, both recreationally and professionally.  I’m in a much better headspace than I was last year, with a renewed drive to continue to pursue things that give me joy. Let this be a promise that I hold myself to throughout 2019, that I push myself not only to continue the upkeep with this little blog of mine, but in the other endeavors I’ve been ignoring.

So, without further adieu, my favorite movies of 2018. 

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Surprises and Snubs: Screen Actors Guild Nominations

Oh the SAG awards. I know that the Golden Globes get a lot of flack for being out there with their choices, but this is the same voting body that is responsible for nominations like Judi Dench in Victoria and Abdul, Naomi Watts in St. Vincent and everyone’s favorite, Emily Blunt for The Girl on the Train

This year we have shockers like Margot Robbie in Mary Queen of Scotts, no love for If Beale Street Could Talk (huge loss to Regina King this morning who was also snubbed in television), continued love for BlackKklansman, a double whammy for Emily Blunt and a Bohemian Rhapsody ensemble nomination (YIKES).

Take a look at the full list of film nominees below. 

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76th Annual Golden Globe Nominations Include “A Star Is Born” and “Black Panther”

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association (otherwise known as the people who vote on the Golden Globes) have announced their crop of nominations. As usual, they marched to the beat of their own drum; and while there was nothing as shocking as The Tourist being nominated in 2010, there were some surprises.

The HFPA went hard for BlacKkKlansman, a film that needed a boost after coming out much earlier in the year, Green Book (despite its under performance at the box office) and of course, A Star Is Born. Bradley Cooper was nominated for both Director and Lead Actor (Drama), while Lady Gaga was nominated for her performance and songwriting for “Shallow” in Original Song.

Black Panther solidified itself as a formidable contender after getting a nomination in Best Motion Picture (Drama), while both Vice and Mary Poppins Returns planted their flags as late breaking contenders.

Read the full list of nominations below.

Best Motion Picture- Drama:

  • Black Panther
  • BlacKkKlansman
  • Bohemian Rhapsody
  • If Beale Street Could Talk
  • A Star Is Born

Best Motion Picture- Comedy or Music:

  • Crazy Rich Asians
  • The Favourite
  • Green Book
  • Mary Poppins Returns
  • Vice

Best Director:

  • Bradley Cooper, A Star Is Born
  • Alfonso Cuarón, Roma
  • Peter Farley, Green Book
  • Spike Lee, BlacKkKlansman
  • Adam McKay, Vice

Best Performance By an Actor in a Motion Picture- Drama:

  • Bradley Cooper, A Star Is Born
  • Willem Dafoe, At Eternity’s Gate
  • Lucas Hedges, Boy Erased
  • Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody
  • John David Washington, BlacKkKlansman

Best Performance By an Actress in a Motion Picture- Drama

  • Glenn Close, The Wife
  • Lady Gaga, A Star is Born
  • Nicole Kidman, Destroyer
  • Melissa McCarthy, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
  • Rosamund Pike, A Private War

Best Performance By an Actor in a Motion Picture- Comedy or Musical:

  • Christian Bale, Vice
  • Lin Manuel Miranda, Mary Poppins Returns
  • Viggo Mortensen, Greenbook
  • Robert Redford, The Old Man and the Gun
  • John C. Reily, Stan & Ollie

Best Performance By an Actress in a Motion Picture- Comedy or Musical:

  • Emily Blunt, Mary Poppins Returns
  • Olivia Colman, The Favourite
  • Elsie Fisher, Eighth Grade
  • Charlize Theron, Tully
  • Constance Wu, Crazy Rich Asians

Best Supporting Performance By an Actor in a Motion Picture: 

  • Mahershala Ali, Green Book
  • Timothée Chalamet, Beautiful Boy
  • Adam Driver, BlacKkKlansman
  • Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
  • Sam Rockwell, Vice

Best Supporting Performance By an Actress in a Motion Picture:

  • Amy Adams, Vice
  • Claire Foy, First Man
  • Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk
  • Emma Stone, The Favourite
  • Rachel Weisz, The Favourite

Best Screenplay:

  • Roma
  • The Favourite
  • If Beale Street Could Talk
  • Vice
  • Greenbook

Best Original Song:

  • “All the Stars,” Black Panther
  • “Girl in the Movies,” Dumplin’
  • “Requiem for a Private War,” A Private War
  • “Revelation,” Boy Erased
  • “Shallow,” A Star Is Born

Best Original Score

  • A Quiet Place
  • Isle of Dogs
  • Black Panther
  • First Man
  • Mary Poppins Returns

Best Animated Film

  • Incredibles 2
  • Isle of Dogs
  • Mirai
  • Ralph Breaks the Internet
  • Spider-Man: Into the Spider Verse

Best Foreign Language Film

  • Capernaum
  • Girl
  • Never Look Away
  • Roma
  • Shoplifters

 

Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” Named Best Film at New York Film Critic’s Circle

The New York Film Critics Circle have announced their winners for their annual awards, swinging big for Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma. Cuarón’s follow up to 2013’s Gravity was named Best Film, and won two additional prizes for Director and Cinematography. After winning the top prize at Venice Film Festival this past fall, it’s hard to not consider it the film to beat. 

Other big winners include Richard E. Grant for Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Regina King (hot off her win at the National Board of Review) and Ethan Hawke (hot off his win at the Gotham Awards). 

Take a look at the full list of winners (with some brief commentary) below.

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“Sweetener” Review: We’re Gonna Be Alright

People were waiting for Ariana Grande’s fourth album, a collection of music that would be inextricably tied to the tragic terrorist attack at her Dangerous Woman tour in the city of Manchester last year. Though understandably devastated by the event, Grande bravely returned to put on a benefit concert to honor her fans and bring everyone together. She then dropped off of social media, only offering a cryptic teaser that hinted at new music featuring her heavenly vocals with the caption “see you next year.” As the year rolled on, albums and singles came and went. Though still largely out of sight, rumors continued to pop up that Grande was prepping something big, her most personal album yet according to industry insiders. By the time the singer started teasing lead single “no tears left to cry,” fans were insatiable, and all signs seemed to point to a power ballad about moving past tragedy that would no doubt showcase Grande’s soaring voice. Instead, they got a quirky, buoyant pop song that tricked listeners in the first 15 seconds after a somber intro explodes into an infectious UK garage beat. “I’m lovin, I’m livin, I’m pickin’ it up” Grande sings on the hook.

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Final Academy Award Predictions

Tomorrow morning, the nominations for the 90th Academy Award ceremony will be revealed. Based on precursors, it’s going to be a big morning for The Shape of Water (which has been nominated by every major guild and won with the Producer’s) and Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (our Best Picture frontrunner). I fully expect Get OutLady Bird and Dunkirk to get a healthy amount of nominations as well. The biggest question is how well passion picks like I, Tonya, Mudbound and Call Me By Your Name will do. Will the Academy resist the Netflix aspect of Mudbound‘s distribution? Was the BAFTA love for Darkest Hour a fluke? 

Below are my full list of nomination predictions. 

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