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Jordan Peele's "Us": The horror! The horror!

Posted: Sat Mar 09, 2019 10:26 am
by jserraglio

Jordan Peele — Master of Suspense

By Jonah Weiner

In his highly anticipated film ‘Us,’ the director again uses horror to investigate the soul of contemporary America

On a narrow street in the hills above Los Angeles, tourists cluster together with their smartphones held high: The Hollywood sign looms behind them, and they’re taking selfies. If they paid any attention to the house directly in front of them, they might spot the cameras installed around the facade, or the guard on hand to ward off intruders. These precautions are in place not because of who lives inside but what: Within a temperature-controlled box on the topmost floor, one of 2019’s most-anticipated films sits on a server connected to editing consoles throughout the house. The movie is Us, comedian-turned–horror auteur Jordan Peele’s follow-up to his 2017 smash, Get Out—a deeply disturbing, wildly entertaining exploration of covert American racism that earned Peele an Oscar for screenwriting and a nomination for best director, and which grossed a quarter of a billion dollars worldwide on a budget of just $4.5 million.
Us cost roughly four times as much to make, a sum that afforded Peele what he calls a step up from Get Out, production-wise, while still ensuring him creative control. Regardless of the price tag, the stakes are higher this time around: The success of Get Out transformed Peele, 40, from a gifted sketch comic into one of our reigning pop-cultural soothsayers, and now millions of people are waiting to see what he will show us next.
It’s early January, and Peele’s deadline for delivering the film is five weeks away. Between now and then, he’s got to shoot some additional footage, capture some audio and sort out a bunch of trims and tweaks. Rather than oversee this work on a studio back lot, he’s turned this rented house into his headquarters. In a dark room on the ground floor, an assistant editor cues up a harrowing sequence about 45 minutes into Us, during which the film’s monsters are fully revealed. It might be the hundredth time that Peele has watched some version of this passage; he needs to be absolutely sure it’s working.
“In Get Out terms, it’s around where the hypnosis scene happens,” he says, referencing the point in that movie when the villains’ machinations start coming into focus. “You can only build that tension and have the audience feel completely clueless as to where this is going for so long. At a certain point you have to pay them back.”
The payback arrives at a midcentury house near Santa Cruz, California, belonging to a wife and husband named Adelaide and Gabe Wilson, played by Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke, actors recently seen together in Black Panther. The Wilsons are summering with their adolescent kids, Jason and Zora, and in this scene the vacation takes an irrevocable turn for the worse: Four figures in crimson garments, known as The Tethered, materialize in the Wilsons’ driveway, standing in ominous silence before mounting a violent home invasion and confronting the Wilsons face to face. The twist—already disclosed in the Us trailer—is that the faces in question are identical to the Wilsons’. As Jason puts it, aghast at the sight of their malevolent doppelgängers: “It’s us.”
When the sequence is over, Peele, wearing ’80s-era Reeboks and a red hoodie, climbs the stairs to his office. “I’m still tense,” he declares happily. “I’ve watched it so many times, and I’m the one who designed it, so when something still works for me, I know it’s effective.”
Many of Peele’s most ardent fans first came to know him as half of the inspired, extremely silly Comedy Central sketch duo Key & Peele. Discussing the footage we just watched, Peele draws a straight line from his past, conducting laughs, to his present, conducting dread: “People who have done live comedy and who have written comedy develop a real sense of how an audience is going to react. It’s a skill that continues to sharpen, and in my directing career, it’s left me obsessed with riding the audience like a wave.”
When it comes to horror, riding that wave means employing a variety of strategies. Peele’s favorite of these—appropriately, for a film about hostile doubles—turns the audience against itself. “At one end of the spectrum, there’s the jump scare, and at the other end, there’s slow-building, unnerving anticipation—the terror,” he says. “For my money, terror is the best type of scare, because it’s the promise of horror to come. When the audience is in that state, you don’t have to do much. Their imagination is more powerful than any piece of imagery or any timing or misdirection you could do.” Peele settles into an overstuffed couch and crosses his legs. “It’s about nurturing what’s inside of the audience,” he says with a grin. “Setting their imagination free to do its worst.”
Peele’s office is packed with horror-geek trophies. There’s a framed 1959 architectural schematic of Norman Bates’s house, from the preproduction of Psycho (“Universal gave that to me as a gift after Get Out,” he says), near a black-and-white photo of Mia Farrow from Rosemary’s Baby, which hangs, in turn, near a pair of shiny gold scissors that figure nastily in Us. Across the room, a vinyl copy of Philip Glass’s 1992 score for Clive Barker’s Candyman stands prominently on a bookshelf a few feet from Peele’s Get Out Oscar statuette.
For Peele, crafting an atmosphere of terror with painstaking care is not a matter of torturing an audience but rather, he insists, of respecting them. His respect often takes the form of granular details strewn throughout his films like puzzle pieces. Watching Us, you may or may not notice the man who appears early on, off to one side, holding a cardboard sign that reads jeremiah 11:11. You might remember him later, when a digital clock displays 11:11 p.m. It may take a second viewing before you connect this motif to the carnival worker wearing a T-shirt with the logo of the band Black Flag—four vertical black bars—or notice that another character is wearing a different Black Flag shirt later on. You will likely emerge with theories about what this all means, which is the buzzing condition Peele wants you in.
“In some ways there’s more I’m offering for the audience to unpack in this film than there was in Get Out,” he says. “I do like to give the audience enough to figure it out, if they were to watch the movie enough, but I feel similarly to David Lynch in that I don’t think the audience needs to know everything. The key for me, as a director, is that I need to know everything, because the audience can sense it if I don’t. The beauty of Lynch’s work is that you can leave fulfilled and, at the same time, clueless as to what it was about.”
Lupita Nyong’o says that, to ground her lead performances as Adelaide and her double, she needed to know everything too: “Jordan layers his stories with images and themes and creates this intricate tapestry in the storytelling, so I needed to sit with him and mine him for as much information as possible. My performance had to be specific; otherwise it would be chaotic.” She describes Peele’s directing style as highly collaborative. “When we first met, he asked a question no other director has asked me to date: ‘What’s your process and what do you need from me?’ It revealed how empathetic he was, and that manifested in the way he conducted his set—he was always articulate about what he wanted, but also very adaptable. I feel like we sculpted these characters together: He’s passionate about his vision without ever being precious.” Nyong’o laughs. “I almost can’t believe these dark things come from such a gentle person.”
Peele wants social critiques to intertwine with his scares. “When you look at the great horror directors—George Romero, Wes Craven, John Carpenter, Alfred Hitchcock—they’re all talking about something without talking about it,” he says. When discussing the origins of Get Out, in which the monsters were a white liberal family who preyed on black victims despite a veneer of progressive enlightenment, Peele repeatedly explained how the notion of a post-racial America, which circulated around the 2008 election, struck him as part of a destructive national mind-set of denial. “The thing I didn’t feel we were talking about in any substantive manner was race. With this one, I asked myself, ‘What are we not ready to talk about now?’ And the answer for me was, ‘What is my part in this mess?’
“We’re living in a messy time,” he continues. “A dark time. And I think there’s plenty of blame to go around, but what I don’t see happening enough is people looking at their own part in this dark turn. It’s so much easier to blame the other. It connects to something in human nature, and to a duality in the history and present of this country as well: this fear of the outsider. This movie was a way to say, What if the intruder is us? Maybe the monster has our face, and we’re so obsessed with some unrecognizable monster that we’ve been blinded to the real one.”
Horror offered him a perfect tradition within which to explore this theme. “Invasion movies—whether it’s a home invasion or The Birds or UFOs—pull from fear of the outsider. Right now we’re in a time where that fear is very thick in the zeitgeist: fear of North Korea making a bomb, fear of immigrants. But we’re realizing that the terror is homegrown, too. Writing this movie, I thought a lot about 9/11. Where we are now as a culture is very connected to that scar. In the most literal ways: There’s discussion of banning people from entering this country that’s this residual trauma from that day. We have values that we claim this country is about, but we have a dark side that is the opposite of those values. I wanted to channel some of that dark space: to say that you can have invading others that are truly resorting to evil means, but if we’re not asking how we got ourselves here, from all angles, we’re doomed to rinse and repeat.”
Peele was born to a white mom and black dad. He grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, raised by the former; his father wasn’t around much, and Peele was about 8 the last time he saw him. (He died in 1999.) By Peele’s own description he was a nerdy kid, into Garfield, Tim Burton and puppetry. By the time he dropped out of Sarah Lawrence he’d become hyperliterate in horror and, simultaneously, obsessed with improv comedy. In both idioms, he has addressed complex questions about race, such as what it means to be authentically black—a question with particular resonance to a kid whose own dad once asked him why he “talked white.”
In 2003 he joined the cast of MadTV, but his big break came in 2012 on Key & Peele, which helped to fill a vacuum left by the legendary Chappelle’s Show, and which Peele created with a fellow biracial comedian from the MadTV days, Keegan-Michael Key. Together they found laughs by exploding black stereotypes, but although issues of racial identity are explicit in Get Out, they arise more subtly and incidentally in Us. Rather than another meditation on race, Peele says, he wanted to explore questions of economic privilege, training his lens on an upper-middle-class American family that happens to be black.
Watching Us, we gradually glean that The Tethered have led a shadow existence of suffering and deprivation in parallel to the Wilsons’ cosseted, comfortable life. “There’s this idea that we deserve our privilege,” Peele says, “but when someone enjoys privilege, there almost has to be someone suffering so you can have that. Which means it’s not deserved. It’s violent. In this country we shield ourselves from the people who make our shoes. The people who have to work three jobs. The people we’ve murdered to build over. The wars that have happened so that we can have what we have. If we really acknowledge our place in the world, we have to acknowledge the atrocities, even if we’re not active members in them.” I observe that Peele has just paraphrased Marx’s theories of alienation in describing a potential Hollywood blockbuster, and he doesn’t miss a beat: “The Tethered are wearing red.”
It’s no coincidence that, after Get Out, Peele made a movie about parents and kids. In the summer of 2017, his wife, comedian Chelsea Peretti, gave birth to their son, Beaumont. “Our connection is probably comedic, first and foremost,” he says of Peretti. “It only becomes more gratifying getting a good laugh out of her. She’s sort of learned my bag of tricks so I’ve got to keep getting better. But I won’t lie; our son is the funniest. He’s into trucks and animals, and he doesn’t know why he’s funny, but you just watch him and you’re beaming.”
Building his own family gave Peele all manner of inspiration as he dreamed up Us. “I’m having a kid and settling down, and in obvious ways that helps explain why an intruder and a threat to the home are on the list of new worst fears I’m grappling with,” he says. He notes that he regards Adelaide as his on-screen proxy and explains how first-time fatherhood connects directly to Us’s theme of doubled identities: “As a new father, you go through another infancy yourself. I’m only one-and-a-half years old as a dad. I don’t think there’s any parent whose world isn’t upended by having a kid, where you’re back to square one, piecing together this thing. I feel like a different person now, rising to this new character: Dad. That’s a whole different dude than I’ve ever been.” Making a movie like Us, Peele explains, helped him to understand who that different dude is with more depth.
For all he’s told me about knowing everything about the film, he concedes that—much as with parenting—at some point, whatever it is he’s working on slips out of his control and takes on its own life. “I can watch Us, just like I watched Get Out, and learn what I’m trying to say to myself,” he says. “You never make a film and know what you were doing entirely.”
Issues of family and issues of inequality are clearly on Peele’s mind beyond Us. His new television series Weird City is also about the country’s deep economic divide, featuring denizens of a dystopian near-future who live in luxury and squalor, respectively, along a boundary called “the line.” A YouTube original starring Michael Cera and Gillian Jacobs, the show blends comedy and sci-fi and is just one of the projects to emerge under the auspices of Peele’s bustling production company, Monkeypaw. Others include Spike Lee’s feted BlacKkKlansman, a Twilight Zone reboot, which he’s narrating, and the upcoming HBO series Lovecraft Country, co-produced with J.J. Abrams and set in the Jim Crow South of the 1950s.
Monkeypaw’s slate, heavy on artists of color, helps to illustrate the ways in which Get Out made Peele into not only a preeminent auteur but also a power broker—and it reflects broader changes in the business that Get Out helped catalyze. “Jordan didn’t make that movie because he thought, ‘There’s a space for a movie like this to be a hit’—he made it because, as an artist, he needed to make it,” says Abrams. “But as a result, people are waking up to the idea that a genre story by, about and starring people of color can be massively successful. As a white man in the business I can’t imagine how hard it’s been for people of color, women, women of color to get the kinds of opportunities I’ve been given. Jordan busted open the door that much wider, and I think he’s going to inspire even more people to come bust it off its hinges entirely.”
Peele says that, in Hollywood, “the presumption used to be that a successful story is about someone who looks and feels like the audience. With the majority population being white, why would you make a movie with a protagonist of a different race than where your money is? It was a failure of imagination. Black people always saw white movies—because we had to! But also because when a story works, you see yourself in it no matter who you are.”
Peele shifts forward on the couch. “My goal is to make sure this isn’t a phase, where they’ll look back and go, ‘Remember that couple of years with the minority-driven films?’ ” His face lights up. “Now that there’s a willingness to invest in new people and fresh stories,” he says, “I feel shot out of a cannon.”

Re: Jordan Peele's "Us" out this month

Posted: Sat Mar 16, 2019 1:57 pm
by jserraglio

Re: Jordan Peele's "Us" out this month

Posted: Sat Mar 16, 2019 1:59 pm
by jserraglio

Re: Jordan Peele's "Us" out this month

Posted: Sat Mar 16, 2019 2:01 pm
by jserraglio

Review: Jordan Peele's Us Is Dazzling to Look At. But What Is It Trying to Say?



MARCH 15, 2019

Writer-director Jordan Peele’s 2017 Get Out was a brash and intriguing debut, a picture that wrestled with the notion of whether or not America can ever be a post-racial society: Vital and spooky, it refused to hand over easy answers. With the ambitious home-invasion horror chiller Us, Peele goes even deeper into the conflicted territory of class and race and privilege; he also ponders the traits that make us most human. But this time, he’s got so many ideas he can barely corral them, let alone connect them. He overthinks himself into a corner, and we’re stuck there with him.

Lupita Nyong’o stars as Adelaide, who has overcome a traumatic childhood experience and now has a family of her own, including husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and two kids: graceful, well-adjusted Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and the slightly more awkward Jason (Evan Alex), who wears a wolfman mask pushed up on his head as a kind of security blanket. We meet the comfortably middle-class Wilson family as they’re heading off on vacation to Santa Cruz, the site of Adelaide’s childhood ordeal. On their first night away, they look out and see a family of four, mute and stony echoes of themselves, standing in the driveway. From there, Peele unspools a story of “shadow” people, long forced to live underground but now streaming to the Earth’s surface to claim, violently, what they feel is rightfully theirs.

The effectiveness of Us may depend on how little you know about it going in, so the spoiler-averse may wish to stop reading here. But it’s impossible to address any of the movie’s larger ideas without giving away key plot points: Before long, that shadow family has infiltrated the house, and now that we can get a good look, we see that each of them is a not-quite-right replica of a Wilson, dressed in a red jumpsuit and wielding a pair of menacing-looking shears. At one point a terrified Adelaide asks the other mother, a twin of herself but with vacant, crazy eyes and a demented smile, “What are you people?” “We are Americans,” the lookalike responds, in a whispery growl.

That’s a bright, neon-lit Author’s Message if ever there was one, though the idea of using a group of sunlight-deprived semi-zombies as a metaphorical element in a parable about class complacency isn’t necessarily a bad one. Are you and your family doing great? Do you live in a nice place, drive an expensive car, and have plenty of food for everyone to eat? Be grateful for it. But be aware that there are others who, through no fault of their own, don’t live at the same comfort level—or are, in fact, barely surviving. (The Wilsons also have close friends, Josh and Kitty, played by Tim Heidecker and Elisabeth Moss, who have more money and nicer stuff than they do, a source of irritation for Gabe in particular, and another of the movie’s threads about class consciousness in America.) But Peele doesn’t always lay out his ideas clearly. Us isn’t always fun to watch; there are stretches where it’s plodding and dour. He’s overly fond of heavy-duty references, including Biblical ones: A creepy dude holds a sign that reads Jeremiah 11:11. (If you don’t know it outright, it’s the one that goes, “Therefore thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them.”) The mood of Us is sometimes chilling, but even then, you’re not always sure what, exactly, is chilling you. Maybe it’s just the feeling of being trapped in an over-air-conditioned lecture hall, because there’s a strain of preachiness running through the whole thing.

One thing that’s unquestionable: Peele is a dazzling visual stylist. (Peele’s cinematographer is Mike Gioulakis, who also shot David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, as well as M. Night Shyamalan’s Split and Glass.) The movie’s opening, which details young Adelaide’s nightmare—it takes place in a ghoulish hall of mirrors on the Santa Cruz boardwalk—is a mini-horror masterpiece by itself, an evocation of the outright weirdness of childhood rather than its wonder: As the girl wanders away from her parents, in an almost trancelike state, she clutches a candied apple so shiny it’s like blood-red crystal ball—and puts us in a trance, too.

Yet the rest of Us is laden with metaphors, and they pile up so quickly that not even Peele can keep up with them. The movie repeatedly references Hands Across America, a 1986 benefit event in which some 6.5 million people joined hands along a route mapped out across the contiguous United States. (Many participants had donated $10 to reserve a space in the chain; the money was donated to local charities dedicated to fighting hunger and ending poverty.) In Us, the shadow people form a similar chain. But it’s hard to know what Peele is trying to say with that image. Are the semi-zombies of Us just less fortunate versions of us? Are they actually us and we don’t know it? Is their clumsy anger somehow superior to thought and reason? After all, it has unified them, while we aboveground humans are more divided than ever.

How, in the end, are we supposed to feel about these shadow people, for so long deprived of basic human rights—including daylight—that they have become murderous clones? Sometimes great movies are ambiguous, but ambiguity resulting from unclear thinking makes nothing great. It’s one thing for a movie to humble you by leaving you unsure about yourself and your place in the world; it’s another for it to leave you wondering what, exactly, a filmmaker is trying to use his formidable verbal and visual vocabulary to say.

Re: Jordan Peele's "Us" out this month

Posted: Fri Mar 22, 2019 2:55 pm
by jserraglio
Us. Them!

Invasion of body snatchers! Night of living dead! Nosferatu!

Hommage to The Shining.

Just saw it. It was brilliant and original. Without being in any simple way like them, Jordan Peele is already the John Carpenter and may become the the Alfred Hitchcock of his generation. I did not find the film pretentious or preachy, unless of course enacting truthful fiction in today's world of alternate facts makes one a sermonizer. As for the "plodding and dull stetches", those must've not made it into the theatrical cut I saw in the movie house. The version I saw was gripping from start to finish.
Ralph Ellison wrote:I am an invisible man.
No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe;
nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a
man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids -- and I might even be
said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people
refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus
sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard,
distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings,
themselves, or figments of their imagination -- indeed, everything and
anything except me.

Re: Jordan Peele's "Us": The horror! The horror!

Posted: Sun Mar 31, 2019 1:10 am
by jserraglio