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Posts Tagged ‘Jordan Peele’

‘He hasn’t done a movie for a bit,’ observed Former Next Desk Colleague Now Manager (At A Different Establishment), when I revealed I was planning on seeing the new movie by Jordan Peele. ‘He tends to take his time, doesn’t he?’

I wouldn’t necessarily have said this, but. ‘Well, I suppose he has spent the last couple of years pretending to be Rod Serling,’ I said.

‘You what?’

‘You know, he did the most recent version of Twilight Zone on the telly.’

‘Are we thinking about the same guy?’

It turned out we were not, and Former Next Desk Colleague Now Manager (At A Different Establishment) was actually getting Jordan Peele mixed up with Neil Jordan – which is not, perhaps, the most obvious confusion to get oneself entangled in, given Neil Jordan does all kinds of movies and Jordan Peele, as a writer and director at least, has tended to stick to a horror-adjacent furrow (and see, as mentioned already, his take on The Twilight Zone).

Things do not seem to have changed very greatly as Peele’s new movie, Nope, gets underway: there is an opening tableau which manages to be rather gory and unsettling and borderline surreal, before we are off into the lives of the protagonists, the Haywood family. They are long-established horse-breeders and animal trainers for Hollywood movies – a remote ancestor was the first man ever caught on film – but things are not going well. Family patriarch Otis (veteran actor and cult star Keith David) is caught in a freak shower of metal debris and killed, leaving taciturn elder son OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) struggling to make ends meet, even with the help of his more personable sister Emerald (Keke Palmer).

Things get so bad that OJ finds himself selling some of the family horses to former child star Ricky Park (Steven Yeun), who has set up a fairly tacky wild-west themed attraction down the other end of their valley. But it seems that cash flow could be the least of their problems – there are sudden, inexplicable power outages around their ranch, strange noises and shadows, and horses begin to mysteriously disappear. When the siblings see a disc-shaped object in the sky overhead, and discover that there is a cloud formation nearby which seems bafflingly immune to the local weather, they begin to suspect the ranch may have visitors of a non-terrestrial kind…

Peele body-swerves around the usual notes of panic and alarm that would normally accompany this kind of plot development in favour of something more down-to-earth: Em points out that there’s big money in UFO footage, all they have to do is get the saucer on camera somehow and all their financial troubles are over. However, it transpires that they may have dangerously misunderstood the nature of the thing in the sky, and getting a camera pointing at it and in focus may not be the best of ideas…

This is one of those films that probably sounds a lot more straightforward in precis than is actually the case. There’s a reason why Peele was given the job of doorman to the Twilight Zone, and that’s because his last couple of films have been fairly low-key, high-concept horror allegories (even if, in Get Out at least, the exact nature of the metaphor he was trying to construct remained a bit oblique – to your correspondent at least). Nope is a slightly different piece of work – not least in its scale, as it has getting on for twenty times the budget of Get Out. There is much more of a visual element to this film.

This is touched upon from the opening moments, which feature a Biblical quotation on the topic of ‘making a spectacle’ – although not in the positive sense in which we usually talk of something being spectacular. It does seem like Peele is, on some level at least, attempting to deconstruct the whole idea of what a spectacular summer movie is and how it works; sight and the visual image are touched on again and again as motifs, throughout the movie – much of it is mediated by cameras and their images, as characters observe events through CCTV systems or attempt to capture a particular moment on film. It’s hardly insignificant that the Haywoods have their unique ancestral distinction, while another character’s reaction, after being involved in a fairly significant road accident, is to ask whether anyone filmed it. (This character appears to be named after Eadweard Muybridge, one of the pioneers of motion-picture photography.)

This is a laudably big and complex project for a summer movie – one which attempts to provide spectacle as well as comment on it. In this respect Peele appears to be borrowing from the playbook of one of the grand masters of the form, namely Steven Spielberg – there are a lot of clearly Spielbergian touches to this movie (one should say it starts off by bearing more than a passing resemblance to an M Night Shymalan project, too), and if one wanted to be as reductive as possible the plot could be described as a mash-up of Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. This is a fairly weird premise for a movie, but then Peele goes ahead and includes a lot of additional, even surreal touches – there’s a whole subplot about a chimpanzee running bloodily amok on the set of a fictitious sitcom back in the 1990s, which doesn’t really connect to the main storyline except in the most tangential and thematic way.

Nevertheless, the performances are good, especially by Kaluuya, who has the tricky job of trying to lead a movie while playing someone who’s basically an introvert. It’s also nice to see the return of ash-gargling one-time heavy Michael Wincott, who shows up as the expert called in by the siblings – his area of expertise is, inevitably, cinematography. Peele himself handles the film with obvious skill, transitioning from the creepier early sequences to the wide-screen action of the climax with great deftness.

In the end I would say Nope is an admirably intelligent and well-made film, but more of a commentary on cinema than a genuine example of it. Too many elements remain oblique and obscure, although the central idea is a strong one and it’s never less than watchable. It seems a very safe bet that Jordan Peele will one day make a really great film. But this is not quite it.

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I think I have mentioned in the past the curious relationship between comedy and horror as genres, and the peculiar way in which they reflect each other. A bad comedy film can be one of the most horrible experiences imaginable; few things are more laughable than a bad horror movie. It seems to me that they are also quite unforgiving genres to work in: whether or not a drama or action movie really works is to some extent subjective, but it’s much easier to tell with the two in question – unless it makes you laugh, a comedy’s not working. Unless it’s making you scared (or at least uneasy in your seat) the same is true of a horror movie.

Perhaps this has something to do with why Jordan Peele, until a few years ago really best known as a comedian, has suddenly managed to establish himself as a sort of horror-weird fiction impressario in the American media. Mostly this has been off the back of Get Out, a movie which I have to confess impressed me less than many other people. As a result of that movie’s success Peele has been handed the arguably poisoned chalice of the curatorship of The Twilight Zone (one assumes that some day people will eventually figure out that it’s not 1960 any more, but it clearly hasn’t happened yet), and seems to have been given absolute carte blanche with his new movie, Us.

The new film concerns a nice, affluent American family who as things get under way are heading to their holiday home near Santa Cruz. The father (Winston Duke) is looking forward to the break, his wife (Lupita Nyong’o) seems to troubled by an odd sense of foreboding. Their kids (Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex) don’t seem to have particularly strong feelings either way.

Well, the holiday proceeds along the lines you would expect: father goofs about, mother worries, the kids annoy each other and their parents. But as the audience is already starting to realise that Nyong’o’s character had a (to put it mildly) traumatic experience at this same resort as a child, all this is to be expected.

What comes a little out of the blue, if you haven’t seen any of the publicity for this film at least, is the appearance in the driveway one night of another family, all clad in identical red jumpsuits and wielding fearsome-looking pairs of scissors. Soon they find themselves under siege from what seem to be their own bestial doppelgangers…

Well, you may be thinking, that sounds like an interesting premise for a horror movie, to which my response is: well, ye-es, as the kernel of an idea it has its merits, the real challenge lies in expanding it to form the basis of a whole 90 minute movie (Us, by the way, lasts a shade under two hours), especially one with a bit of heft and proper subtext to it. That was really my issue with Get Out, which I enjoyed rather less than most legitimate critics: a nicely made film, and I got the point and most of the references, but what was it actually about? What was the central metaphor? I have never seen an explanation that struck me as especially convincing.

On the other hand, it is relatively straightforward to work out the train of thought which led to Us being made. One imagines Jordan Peele in a room with big film industry types, being clapped on the back and given cigars, as is only proper when your film has just made back about fifty-seven times its admittedly modest budget, as well as doing unexpectedly well at the Oscars. So, they say, toying idly with the handle of a huge valise full of money, we loved the last one. Got any other ideas? Peele thinks desperately. Well, he says, I had this kind of scary dream last week… Terrific! cry the backers. Here’s $20 million dollars. Can’t wait to see it.

Us does has that sense of a movie which Peele has made primarily because someone wanted Peele to make a movie: if the film has a burning message, or is even about something in particular, it is not readily apparent. The opening segment of the film sets up a fairly ominous atmosphere quite effectively, and the sequence of the family being terrorised by their doubles also contains some quite effective material.

But then, unexpectedly, this part of the film ends, and I for one was left scratching my head: it’s made pretty clear from the start that there’s something else going on here, and due to be paid off before the credits roll, but it’s impossible to guess what that it is. This is largely, I would say, because the film becomes increasingly incoherent as it goes on, with the narrative proceeding in a series of startling and unpredictable leaps rather than having any real logical progression to it.

This isn’t immediately apparent, of course, and I did initially try to decipher what the inner meaning of Us might be: the title obviously serves double-duty as US, and at one point, when asked who they are, one of the killer duplicates responds ‘Americans’. But if there is a particular point Peele is trying to make, whether about racial, social or economic unease, it is by no means readily discernible.

However, this is not to say that watching Us is a frustrating or unsatisfactory experience: if nothing else, the nature of the film is such that, en route to the bus stop, Olinka and I had a very animated discussion of what the hell it was we’d just seen, much more than most of the films of our recent experience. I did enjoy the audacity of the film very much; once one accepts the way that the latter stages of the film in particular have the fractured logic of an escalating nightmare, there is a lot to enjoy here. The performances from the main quartet are also excellent, particularly Lupita Nyong’o. It is not what I would honestly call a genuinely scary film, but it is an engaging and entertaining one, with some nicely-handled moments of black comedy in the latter stages and also some impressive set pieces.

But in the end, does it really mean anything beyond a series of superficially scary images and unsettling moments? I tend to think not. This is the horror movie as a theme park ride, something to make you go whooo! while you’re watching it, not to give you something to dwell upon (much) once it’s over. This isn’t really my preferred flavour of horror film, but I was still quite impressed by elements of Us, and I think I did enjoy it more than Get Out (others may disagree). I still don’t think he’s the new Rod Serling, but I’ll be interested to see what Jordan Peele does next.

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You know, I try to be a positive, upbeat, and generally forgiving person (admittedly more out of a need to counteract my natural inclination to be extremely bitter, cynical, and vengeful than for any deeply felt moral or philosophical reasons). Despite this, some things retain the power to move me to a dark and terrible fury, and one of these is having films spoiled for me, especially by the websites of newspapers that I trust. And just such a thing happened the other day: in the wake of the release of the trailer for the latest iteration of a well-loved (and perhaps very slightly overrated) franchise that’s been around for nearly 40 years, I clicked onto an article promising to discuss a very specific sub-genre of horror, only to find myself being informed of, well, fairly crucial plot details of Jordan Peele’s Get Out, literally about an hour before I watched the movie.

Get Out isn’t a movie which is wholly dependent on its twist to function, but there is a definite element of mystery built into the story, and knowing the twist going in almost certainly affected my response to the movie – what might have seemed genuinely startling and unexpected, encountered without warning in the unsettling darkness of a movie theatre, inevitably had less impact communicated via text on a laptop. Maybe this is why I am somewhat less impressed with Get Out than many others; I don’t know. I just mention this in the interests of full disclosure an’ all that.

Daniel Kaluuya plays Chris, a young photographer happily entangled with his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams), and about to embark on a trip to meet her parents for the first time. Despite everything, he is a little nervous: will they really be okay with their daughter having a relationship with an African-American man?

Nevertheless, off they go, eventually receiving a warm welcome from her father and mother (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener). Gradually, though, there is an accretion of tiny details that put Chris just a little bit on edge – Rose’s parents have black servants, who behave extremely strangely, and the attitude of the rest of their friends, when they descend for a party, is also slightly strange. The only African-American in the community acts very oddly indeed, attacking Chris and whispering ‘Get out!’ when startled by the flash on his phone camera, and Chris’ transport cop friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery) is startled when he sees the picture – this is a man who disappeared months earlier…

Now, there’s a couple of things we need to keep in mind about Get Out, the first one being that – as mentioned – I had the revelation as to what’s really going in this movie spoiled for me in advance, and it is also – as you may have surmised – fundamentally about the African-American experience in the contemporary United States, something I am supremely under-equipped to presume to discuss in any meaningful way.

However, this movie is also presenting itself as a horror movie, and that at least is something I do feel qualified to comment on. Its closest antecedent, I would suggest, is The Stepford Wives, Ira Levin’s famous tale of… well, I’ve gone to great extremes in the past to avoid spoiling The Stepford Wives for anyone (see, this stuff matters to me), and I’m not going to change that now. Get Out is slightly more of a genre movie, slightly happier to wheel on the third-act violence and gore, but there’s still a distinct family resemblance, in that they are both horror films, to some extent paranoid fantasies, seeking to engage in social commentary and satire.

If we’re going to discuss the horror movie as a vehicle for social comment, then of course we should start with George A Romero and consider Dawn of the Dead: the story of a group of people struggling to survive a zombie apocalypse and the accompanying collapse of society, but also on some level a commentary on consumerism in the modern world. Slightly more pertinently, Night of the Living Dead, also the story of a group of people trying to survive a zombie apocalypse, but also (thanks to the casting of Duane Jones) obliquely about the civil rights struggle occurring in America when it was made.

Get Out, on the other hand, is the story of a group of privileged white people seeking to do horrific things to African-Americans, which also functions as, um, a story about a group of privileged white people seeking to do horrific things to African-Americans. There’s not really enough space here for the film to function on a metaphorical level in the same way as the films that clearly inspired it – what happens in the film is grisly and terrifying, to be sure, and obviously represents an attempt to control and destroy black identity, but even if it’s meant be a symbol of something in the real world, it’s not at all clear what that is.

I mean, some people have suggested the film is a satire on the corrosive and ultimately unhelpful effects of white liberalism – and some of the film’s wittiest moments concern Chris’s deadpan reactions to meeting a bunch of old white people who all assure him how much they love Obama and Tiger Woods – but this doesn’t seem to me to connect to the central notion of the film. I suppose you could argue the film is on some level about cultural appropriation, but again the horror aspect isn’t really a metaphor for this, unless you do some serious stretching. I’m not saying the film never touches on liberalism, or cultural appropriation, or indeed the realities of being a young black man in the USA today, it’s just that there are all these aspects of the film, and then there’s its central idea, which seems to be its own thing, not particularly related to any of them. (Film-making being what it is, Get Out was made before the Great Disaster of last November, and as a result is unable to comment on the implications of the Insane Clown President’s reign. Fertile ground for a future movie, perhaps.)

Not that it isn’t an effective piece of film-making, with a bunch of strong performances from virtually everyone in the cast, and Peele handles the shift from social comedy with darker undertones to full-on horror rather adroitly. However, it deploys a lot of very familiar horror tropes just a bit too knowingly, and some of the time you’re left wondering if this is genuinely meant to be a horror movie, or just some kind of witty pastiche of the genre. In the end I would say this is a well-made and very well-played film, clearly highly intelligent, but one which works much better in its earlier stages than in its final act, throughout which it sort of goes onto autopilot, and also one which never quite reaches the standard of the best of the films which inspired it. Still more fun than Moonlight, though, of course.

 

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