Movie of the Week: Us (2019)

Jordan Peele directs Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke and Elisabeth Moss in this horror satire where a family find themselves pursued by warped look-a-likes of themselves: The Tethered.

***Possible Spoilers***

“What has 12 million eyes, 50 million fingers and stretches all the way from the Statue of Liberty to the Pacific Ocean?” We open on a terrifying question one that is answered twice in Jordan Peele’s Us. The period setting advert we are watching on the fade-in is for the mid 80s charity / promo event Hands Across America, a PR stunt to raise money for the richest nation in the world’s poor. The second answer is drip-fed to us throughout the film. A baffling, awe inspiring, satirically loaded answer that conjures up tantalising further questions and consistent threat and peril. For the monsters in Us are explored but never fully explained, looked at in detail but never neutered or demystified by the spotlight. They say “We’re Americans”, Peele lets us glimpse a hidden, less valued society. It is not giving anything away to say they are the true embodiment of an underclass. Aping the lifestyles of the wealthy, a way of living they can only access if they violently take it back. There are slavery references jotted about the film; underground tunnels, prominent books on intellectual shelves, workers uniforms. America is built on the sweat of the less fortunate, all countries are. Peele imagines what would happen if this violent shadow class took over from the elite, a reparations uprising more organised and marshalled than Watts riots or LA’92. He even winkingly depicts the surviving protagonists, “the good family”, slowly acquiring their slightly richer, white friends’ wealth… by the end the likeable, convincing Wilsons have sat at the Tyler’s dining table, been in their jealousy inducing boat and escaped in their new car… all upgrades from how they started. I’ve read a lot of impatient reviewers say Us isn’t as politically astute or motivated as Get Out which wore its racial arguments more obviously. I think Us is the fuller, more denser allegory. But here’s the best thing… it can be taken completely straight faced as a pure piece of genre entertainment. The thrills and set pieces are clenched and playful, violent and unnerving. There are at least a dozen simple yet impressive iconic moments. Get ready for a Halloween of Red Boilersuits and Brass Scissors… there were already a few kids Tethered up at Comicon this month. Marvel at the final dancing battle of the duelling N’Yongos. Watch as the brilliant Lupita (affecting in both roles) breaks the horror genre curse and gets nominated for acting Oscars next year. Prepare for every version of Luniz half-forgotten ominous banger “I Got 5 On It” to become a household favourite this summer. My one criticism of Get Out always was the intelligent horror and the broad comedy didn’t blend particularly well, here Peele modulates his two preferred genres better… you’ll be gripped, you’ll be shocked and you will laugh. The flare gun pay off in particular is a highlight and the mark of a true entertainer. Hitch and Spielberg would be proud. They’d be proud of all of this… the visual confidence, the perfectly paced cliffhangers. Our local multiplex is being refurbed, so daytime showings vanished for this after the first weekend. I kinda held off reviewing it before a second watch. That probably won’t happen now but the below score of 8 could easily rise once I can repeat view it at home. Us is a bit special, the Tethered have boiled away in my brain since opening night.


My Top 10 Satires

1. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
2. Network (1974)
3. Trading Places (1983)
4. Festen (1998)
5. Election (1999)
6. Sweet Smell Of Success (1957)
7. Falling Down (1993)

8. The Apartment (1960)
9. Do The Right Thing (1988)
10. Duck Soup (1933)


Fighting With My Family (2019)

Stephen Merchant directs Florence Pugh, Nick Frost and Jack Lowden in this true tale wrestling comedy drama following the rise to WWE fame of a shy Norwich girl and the effect her success has on her family’s small scale wrestling business back at home.

Coarse yet effective. Closer to The Full Monty or Brassed Off in tone than Rocky or The Wrestler. At its best when being a foul mouthed British sitcom and gifting Frost his strongest cinematic role yet as a reformed thug dad. Admirably it focuses on lows rather than highs, or brother Zak’s acceptance of lowering his sights after a rejection, as much as we follow the lead’s difficult but inevitable climb to the glamorous top. In Florence Pugh’s Paige we see the loneliness of following your dream, in her brother (Lowden) we see the shaky transition from ambition to accepting reality. The two plots run parallel with each other; one sibling has to overcome self doubt, the other accept it as a new viewpoint. Merchant doesn’t pull punches or go for quick fixes when charting his leads’ psychological journeys. For a film that often feels bluntly naive, this juxtaposition of emotional struggles carries surprising heft. Merchant’s script also nimbly sidesteps the awkward ‘victory in the ring’ paradox (if wrestling is fixed or ‘rehearsed’ then how can winning a bout be seen as a satisfying conclusion) by making the finishing line for Paige to be her earning the self confidence to address the massive crowds. Not a must see but accessible and fun.


Ginger and Rosa (2012)

Sally Potter directs Elle Fanning, Alice Englert and Christina Hendricks in this 1960s coming of age drama about two teenage girls who fall apart under the shadow of CND, intellectualism and free love.

Elle Fanning, by my maths, was only 13 or 14 years old here when playing a 17 year old lead. She convinces and this is an intelligent piece of filmmaking but one that looks better than it plays out. Somehow sacrificing its strong sense of time and place / loss of friendship with histrionics and over emoting. Truth gives way to cliche.


The Gleaners and I (2000/2002)

Agnès Varda directs herself, François Wertheimer and Bodan Litnanski in this documentary that explores the rich and the poor, freegans and artists who live off of the scraps discarded by commercial society.

Agnès Varda sure loved a fig. Watched with its companion piece following up on some of the more tragic figures 2 years later, this makes for a heartfelt, lively documentary exploring scavenging. Whether it be for off brand potatoes, rejected market produce or compelling footage, Varda brings to life a varied cross section of France united by her vague subject. Some dig through bins, others live the high life with bonus materials. One man even ‘gleans’ a better life, one where he may live in a hostel and live off scraps but where he educates immigrants and runs marathons. A very warm hearted look at a potentially tragic subject, that almost accidentally comments on globalisation and social upheavals. As “accidental” as a filmmaker as deft and emotionally intelligent can be. A really deep yet pleasurable documentary.


Southern Comfort (1981)

Walter Hill directs Powers Boothe, Keith Carradine and Fred Ward in this action movie where a squad of squabbling National Guardsmen find themselves being hunted by a group of Cajuns.

The Warriors in the wilderness. With added ‘Nam parallels. The middle loses its way a bit (though that’s apt). The team is manlier, dumber, maybe a tad less sympathetic. Everyone has their psycho moment, their doom inducing breakdown. But that finale. That finale is tight as a drum, a drum squeezing into a particularly tight space. A stand-off so thrilling, so menacing, so swift moving that it cleans the palate of all the dislikable ensemble work and plot swamp water treading. Southern Comfort keeps its mysteries and lives on its violent instincts. An atmospheric Ry Cooder score helps things along magnificently.


The Diary of a Chambermaid (1964)

Luis Buñuel directs Jeanne Moreau, Georges Geret and Michel Piccoli in this drama where a city girl becomes a maid to a rich family in the country uncovering fetishes, corruption and murder.

I always associate Luis Buñuel with weirdness. Surreal imagery, non sequitur plotting, unpredictable characters. This film only skirts around posh people’s eccentricities, to be blunt their perversions. The further right your politics the more dangerous your kink, the more you want to expose their harm the closer you have to get to them. Ignore them, turn a blind eye, and they’ll be marching down your street, owning your business, killing your kids and spouting their racism at the dinner table. A strong central performance by Jeanne Moreau buttresses this enigmatic soap.


Black Sabbath (1963)

Mario Bava directs Boris Karloff, Michèle Mercier and Lidia Alfonsi in this mini trilogy of spooky tales, framed in a colourful comic book style.

Watched as part of the Filmhouse’s late Uncanny Valley strand, this is a horror that isn’t particularly scary, yet feels like a cornerstone for the genre. The anthology format is a veteran of horror from Dead of Night to Holidays. This one is the nexus point. Our first story in which an unbelievably sexy lady is terrorised by a voice on the telephone feels like the progenitor for every slasher, specifically the giallo. The future of horror birthed up in 20 minutes. It really should be placed last in the running (different countries got different chapter orders). The paranoia and threat and sexual vulnerability are palpable. The first 10 edits are essentially a coy striptease show (and what a show the voluptuous Michèle Mercier puts on – she’d make the wolf’s eyes pop out and tongue roll two feet long), the rest a whodunit with only three characters. Tarantino certainly stole his trademark patient one-set set piece from this. Bava gifted QT his ‘moving the domino pieces into place, then chatting so you forget they are about to tumble in glorious inevitably’ mode with this long, steady one scene marvel. The knife moves under the pillow, the vengeful brute introduced into the locked room, the fatal air of jealousy established about desiring the unobtainable Mary. Then watch them all cascade in quick, kinetic finale. It is a fantastic slice of cinema, my favourite in a long while. Natalie preferred the other two tales. Period gothic horrors in the Hammer style. Curses, monsters, zombies, untrustworthy families, contacting the spirit world. Two little stories – every sub genre but body horror covered. Even self aware – the coda is a joyful piece of meta where Boris Karloff and Bava himself break character. We pan back from a shoddy effect, a camp piece of narration to reveal the crew stopping work and the old horror star cackling at the prank. It is a scream. Just, like I said at the start, not very scary.


The Howling (1981)

Joe Dante directs Dee Wallace, Patrick Macnee and Robert Picardo in this tongue in cheek werewolf horror that was very popular back in the day.

Utter tosh. Forgets it is a werewolf movie for huge swathes of its languorous running time. When they do finally show up they prove ineffective.


My Top 10 Werewolf Movies

1. An American Werewolf in London (1981)

2. Wolf (1994)

3. The Beast Must Die (1974)

4. Ginger Snaps (2000)

5. The Wolf Man (1941)

6. The Monster Squad (1987)

7. Silver Bullet (1985)

8. In the Company of Wolves (1984)

9. The Wolfman (2010)

10. Teen Wolf (1985)

Outlaw King (2018)

David Mackenzie directs Chris Pine, Florence Pugh and Stephen Dillane in this historical epic retelling Robert The Bruce’s rebellion.

Mackenzie is a director who has always been special but seemed to have recently hit his groove. Chris Pine is a reliable movie star of the old school mode; handsome, masculine and charismatic. This would have been an opening weekend essential viewing for us if released at the multiplex. Instead it has floated around on my Netflix list, never quite fighting its way in front of other, often lesser, direct-to-streaming films for my immediate attention. Maybe big, gory, hacky, splashy, landscapey, chainmaily and silky productions like this belong at the cinema. It never really takes hold or wows on my IPad. I casually halfheartedly watched it on my chest, maybe the tablet itself split my heart, it certainly didn’t rouse it. The battles and the earnest heroics lack the flow and colourful rhythmic brutality of its spiritual cousin Braveheart. Pine seems subdued, and it is not just my 9 inch screen restricting him. Can’t be. Florence Pugh radiates in her smaller role.


The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978)

Irvin Kershner directs Faye Dunaway, Tommy Lee Jones and Brad Dourif in this supernatural thriller where a fashion photographer shares a psychic link with a killer.

Laura sees through the murderer’s eyes as he stalks his prey. These visions feed into her near pornographic, violent magazine and advert shoots. An unbelieved eyewitness – she soon finds herself in peril. Just not enough peril. We don’t really have enough play with idea that Faye Dunaway can see her attacker’s POV when she is at risk. That’s a unique storytelling wrinkle you could go to town with. The starry / sinister cast also seem to be idling on stand-by… no one is willing to blow their load and show their bloodstained hand or red herring status. The whodunnit mystery motors this wannabe giallo. You can only imagine how much cocaine was taken behind the scenes, how many of the dolly bird extras “earned” their moment’s screentime. It just feels like that kind of snort heavy production – all disco, open collars and predatory executive producers having more power than the talent. The end product (based on a John Carpenter spec script) is now dated but quaintly acceptable.