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

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Again and Again: “Happy Death Day” is A Surprisingly Subversive Horror-Comedy

Theresa “Tree” Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) just can’t catch a break. After waking up in a strange boy’s (The Blind Ring’s Israel Broussard) dorm room after a night of heavy drinking, Tree is fighting a killer headache and must do the walk of shame, in which she tries to unsuccessfully attempts to dodge a pesky student protestor, a guy she’s been ghosting, and her sorority sisters. Later, she will be confronted with the wife of the professor she’s been having an affair with, but now she’s late for her surprise party because there’s a masked murderer trying to kill her. Oh, did I mention it’s also her birthday?

If this sounds like life is playing some cruel joke on her, then just wait till you hear the punchline. When the masked killer does in fact kill Tree (and they do), she wakes up again on the morning of her birthday, doomed to live out the same excruciating day again and again, and again until she can solve the mystery of her murder. 

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Anne Hathaway is Back and Better Than Ever in “Colossal”

If you’re anything like me, you might have been wondering “Where in the world has Anne Hathaway been?” for the last couple of years. 

After the one two punch of her Oscar-winning work in Les Miserables and The Dark Knight Rises, Hathaway took a step into the background. That may have had something to do with the unfair, sexist press coverage she received during the 2012-2013 awards season. It may have also had something to do with her personal life; she got married shortly before she began the press junket for Les Miserables and had a baby a few years later. She was still acting of course; she had a cameo in Don Jon, reprised her voice-over role in Rio 2, starred alongside Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar, headlined The Intern alongside Robert DeNiro and even popped up in the ill-fated Alice Through The Looking Glass. But there was a stark contrast between Hathaway before she won an Oscar, and after. 

Where Hathaway’s post-Oscar roles weren’t exactly the worst roles the actress could have taken, they did little to showcase the full range of her capabilities. But in director/writer Nacho Vigalondo’s black comedy Colossal, Hathaway has found a role that superbly showcases the best of her abilities as a performer. 

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“Beauty and the Beast” Feels Like A Wasted Opportunity

It feels like Disney’s live-action remakes of their animated classics have all been leading to this moment. Though everyone is sure to have a different favorite, Beauty and the Beast is the most iconic of their catalog, next to The Little Mermaid (which is next to receive the remake treatment). The original was the first animated film to ever be nominated for Best Picture, and even managed nominations in Sound Mixing and three for Original Song. Alice in WonderlandSleeping BeautyCinderella and The Jungle Book have all been remade with varying degrees of critical success and huge, record breaking returns at the box office. Beauty and the Beast is bound to be their biggest endeavor yet.

And yet, for all of the hype, star power and magic, Beauty and the Beast winds up being just a straight and very soft pitch down the middle, never slipping into train wreck territory but never achieving the moments of grandeur and greatness that it so clearly desires. 

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“La La Land” Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up To Be

La La Land was one of my most anticipated films of the year. From the moment that excellent first trailer arrived, I was hooked. First of all, I’m a huge sucker for musicals. And while I wasn’t a huge fan of director Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, he seemed to be aiming towards evoking the nostalgia of the great Hollywood musicals of the past, with a modern spin which I was totally down with. I’ve also been a huge fan of Emma Stone’s since her brilliant star making performance in Easy A, and this seemed like the perfect project for her talents. And she had such great chemistry with Ryan Gosling in CrazyStupid Love so what could go wrong, right?

Since then, La La Land has gone on to become the Best Picture frontrunner. It’s racked up wins from the New York Film Critic’s Circle, the coveted People’s Choice Award from TIFF, a bunch of Critic’s Choice wins and a bunch of Golden Globe and Screen Actor’s Guild nominations. It’s been written to death about how La La Land is the perfect antidote for our flaming garbage pile of a year, because after 2016, what we need is a breezy, delightful musical.

But La La Land simply doesn’t live up to the premise or hype bestowed upon it. And while it has some charming moments, they can’t hide the flawed and flimsy plot beneath all of the glitz and nostalgia.

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“Rogue One” is a Great Addition to the Star Wars Saga That Can Stand On its Own

Last year, The Force Awakens burst onto the screen at the end of the year and kickstarted a love of Star Wars for a whole new generation, while (sort of) making up for the dreadful prequel films that still feel all too recent to longtime fans of the series. The film was, in a word, fun; it had everything that made the original trilogy so enjoyable, while not being so wrapped in nostalgia that it felt old and recycled.

We still have another year before we get a look at the next chapter in the adventures of Rey, Finn and Poe Dameron but damn it we need something to hold us over until then! Enter Rogue One, a stand-alone film that sets back the clock a bit to before the events of A New Hope and some time after Revenge of the Sith. The Empire looms large over the galaxy, the Jedi are gone and Luke Skywalker has not yet had his fateful encounter with Obi-Wan Kenobi, nor has Princess Leia been captured.

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“Manchester By The Sea” is By Far the Year’s Most Frustratingly Overrated Film

For months I’ve been hearing nonstop talk about Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By The Sea, which seemed to be the only film out of Sundance that could, at the time, find any coverage outside of Nate Parker’s Birth Of A Nation. As the year has gone on, Manchester has chugged along and slowly been building steam as one of the three Oscar heavyweights. It was named Best Picture by the National Board of Review, with lead actor Casey Affleck winning Best Actor honors from both the Gotham Independent Awards and New York Film Critic’s circle.

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“Arrival” Is Timely, Fascinating and a Showcase For Amy Adams’ talents

It’s been hard to muster any kind of enthusiasm, or any kind of feeling besides grief, hopelessness and rage since Tuesday night. No matter what song I put on, what channel I flipped to or what episode of Portlandia I streamed on Netflix, I just wanted to melt into a puddle. I could not stop thinking about the next four years, and they mean for black, latinx and LGBTQ Americans. So when I sat down for my screening of Arrival last night, I was looking to just escape my mind for a minute; I wanted to turn off the thoughts so that I could come back fully reenergized to figure out how I was going to tackle fighting the racism, bigotry and intolerance that is now America’s President-elect.

Arrival is the escapist entertainment I was seeking. Even if it was for two hours, director Denis Villeneuve’s excellent sci-fi character study manages to transport and astound in every frame.

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Natalie Portman is Exceptional in the Transcendent “Jackie”

There’s a scene in Jackie which sees the titular First Lady (played by Natalie Portman) preparing to walk out of the private jet carrying her, husband John and their entourage in Dallas, Texas. She’s rehearsing her speech while applying her makeup. Wearing the now iconic pink Chanel suit, she adds the finishing touch: the matching pillbox hat. She stares ahead never meeting his gaze, with a blank expression on her face.

“Ready?” John asks her.

“Of course,” she says with the slightest grin.

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