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Posts Tagged ‘Lupita Nyong’o’

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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There are doubtless many good reasons for choosing to be suspicious of major media and entertainment companies, especially ones which spend much of their time talking about social values and positivity and hardly ever mention how machine-tooled their operations are when it comes to separating money from small people and their hapless parents. (One friend of mine eschews the avuncular diminutive in favour of muttering balefully about ‘Walter Disney’ whenever the topic of his corporation comes up.)

Still, one should generally try to keep an open mind: I was about to suggest that I rarely go and see a Disney movie, but now that they own Marvel and are making their own franchise of stellar conflict related films, that’s obviously not true. Perhaps it’s better to say that I rarely see movies made by Disney under their own marque, but I made an exception to go and see Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe, a co-production between the Mouse House and the sports network ESPN (which I am given to understand is yet another Disney subsidiary).

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As the involvement of ESPN might suggest, this is a sports movie, which would normally be another reason for me not to go anywhere near it, but it’s a fairly unusual one, as the sport in question is chess. Now, I admire chess and its players very much, but this is more of one of those from-afar kinds of admiration, apart from a brief period when I played for my university’s team, with rather variable results (probably due to my devil-may-care decision to employ the Grob Attack and Orangutan Opening on a regular basis). My current record against my laptop is rather good, but this is mainly due to steady use of the ‘undo’ key after making an unwise┬ámove.

Queen of Katwe (NB: apparently the last word is not pronounced ‘cat wee’) concerns a player who probably doesn’t need to use the ‘undo’ key at all, Phiona Mutesi. Chess prodigies are, of course, incredibly rare, female ones even rarer, and for a chess prodigy to emerge from the ghettos of Kampala… well, perhaps you can see why someone decided there was a movie in Phiona Mutesi’s story.

The story begins in 2007, with Phiona (Madina Nalwanga), her mother (Lupita Nyong’o) and siblings living in what I can only describe as conditions of extreme poverty in Katwe, a slum outside Kampala, Uganda. (Phiona’s father was a victim of the HIV epidemic, though the film doesn’t really go into this in detail.) As the film opens she is illiterate, can’t afford to go to school, and spends her days selling vegetables in the street simply in order for the family to survive.

Then she meets Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), an unemployed engineer who is running a number of sports outreach programmes for slum children. Some children are not allowed to play football, as their parents wouldn’t be able to pay the medical bills if they got injured, and so Katende is also overseeing a chess group, the Pioneers. And it is here that Phiona first encounters the magic of the sixty-four squares.

The film charts her rise to success and recognition over the next five years, and the effects of this on her, her family, and Katende. I would be lying if I said there was a great deal of originality in most of the narrative beats – Phiona’s mother initially disapproves, Katende’s team of slum players are initially disparaged and scorned by their wealthier opponents and the Ugandan chess establishment, success and failure both take their toll on Phiona, and so on – but the story is so well-told and the performances so engaging that this really isn’t an issue.

I suppose one might also suggest that a set formula has been established for how films set in sub-Saharan Africa are generally presented: anything about human rights or the Rwandan genocide has a dignified gravitas and most likely Ladysmith Black Mambazo on the soundtrack, while more mainstream, crowdpleasing fare has slightly livelier tunes, an exceedingly bright colour palette, and its credits in a font where the letters are multicoloured and jump around on the screen. And, sure enough, Queen of Katwe adheres to the latter set of tenets fairly closely – but, once again, it’s not actually a problem with the film, as it suits the tone and style of it rather well.

Much of the success of this film is down to its command of simple storytelling virtues – the script is strong, the direction extremely capable, and there are winning performances from the child actors and powerful ones from the adults. It’s not surprising that David Oyelowo is starting to draw regular attention from awards committees, for he is a gifted actor of considerable range, and his work here is no exception. Lupita Nyong’o is also good, although her part has somewhat less depth and room to manoeuver.

The film does have the issue that it is, ultimately, about chess, a game which is not necessarily always the most cinematic of pastimes. Probably sensibly, it doesn’t even attempt to teach the rules of the game to the uninitiated, beyond those which are absolutely essential to the plot, but I think it perhaps does grant a sense of how beautifully complex and at the same time brutally unforgiving the game can be. It is perhaps a bit too Hollywood in the way that it depicts supposedly good players looking visibly staggered when taken by surprise by an unexpected move from their opponent near the end of a game, but I suppose this is the nature of the beast; at least it doesn’t show every match being concluded with a surprise mate.

You could be forgiven for assuming that a based-on-a-true-story Disney film is not going to be especially hard-hitting, but I think it would be really stretching a point to suggest that Queen of Katye presents a rose-coloured or sentimental picture of life in the slums of Kampala: the film doesn’t openly grind an axe, but it doesn’t shy away from showing just how gruellingly horrible an existence this is. Some quite strong material is alluded to, and while the underlying question – how can we permit this to continue and call ourselves humane and civilised? – remains implicit, it is unmistakable.

In the end I found Queen of Katwe to be an unexpected treat – engaging, thought-provoking, surprisingly life-affirming, and in places very moving indeed. If you only go to see one film about women’s chess in Uganda this year, you should make it this one.

 

 

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