Elizabeth Moss

Us

23/03/19

Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, Get Out, was an extraordinarily accomplished start to his filmmaking career – indeed, we chose it as one of our ‘best of 2017’ movies. Although Us has a few echoes of that film, it’s an altogether more complex and ambitious project, a powerful metaphor about American society (does Us actually stand for U.S? Could be…). This is about privilege and aspiration and good old-fashioned greed. If occasionally it feels as though Peele hasn’t quite got control of the plethora of issues he unearths here, it’s nevertheless an eminently watchable film.

The Wilsons are a likeable and clearly affluent family, who set off for a summer vacation at the beach resort where Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) used to go with her parents back in the day. Her affable husband, Gabe (Winston Duke), can’t wait to hit the beach and rent out a fancy powerboat, just like his even more wealthy friends, the Tylers (Elizabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker), with whom Gabe has a bit of an unspoken rivalry. The Wilson kids, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and her little brother, Jason (Evan Alex), are happy to be anywhere that has wifi and access to a mobile phone. But Adelaide is hiding a fearful secret. Back in 1986,  when she last visited the resort with her parents, she wandered into a beachside hall of mirrors, where she had a life changing experience…

The past soon makes its chilling presence felt with a night-time visitation by a mysterious family, who turn out to be warped doppelgängers of the Wilson’s themselves – and what was supposed to be a relaxing vacation turns all too quickly into a frenzied struggle for survival.

The first half hour of Us is brilliantly played, starting with subtle intimations of approaching disaster and leading very convincingly into a terrifying twist on the old ‘home invasion’ genre. But, as the story progresses and we begin to learn more about the Wilsons’ nightmarish visitors, we realise that we are in the midst of a raging allegory that attacks the tenets upon which much of middle-class America is founded, sending a warning to the current elite that there’s a whole underclass out there, casting envious eyes upon all those fancy possessions, and covertly drawing up plans to come and take their share.

There are, it has to be said, a few mis-steps here. The Tylers have little to do other than be obnoxious and serve as bloody victims of the new order – and, though I initially enjoy the jokey dialogue that sets up the Wilson family’s dynamic, I feel less comfortable when characters are still doing it in the midst of total carnage. Furthermore, the complex plot strands that explain the existence of the doppelgängers don’t always stand up to close scrutiny. On the plus side, Nyong’o’s performance as the tortured mother with a terrible secret to protect is really quite brilliant and, with a lesser talent in the lead role, this film wouldn’t fly nearly as successfully as it does.

In the end, this doesn’t really measure up to Get Out but there’s enough here to keep you hooked to the final frame, and – unlike many films in this genre – it also gives us plenty to think about afterwards.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

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The Seagull

09/09/18

The name Anton Chekov inevitably brings with it an expectation of lashings of doom and gloom. How many visits to the theatre have yielded hours of miserable people staring bleakly out at fields of wheat and talking about suicide? So it’s heartening to note that this version of The Seagull, directed by Michael Mayer and adapted by Steve Karam, has a lightness of touch about it that makes it feel downright sprightly – not a word you’d usually associate with the Russian playwright.

The action takes place on the country estate of Pjotr (Brian Dennehey), the ailing older brother of successful actress Irina (Annette Bening). Here, upstate New York stands in for the Russian countryside, but manages to look convincing enough, at least to my untrained eye. Irina’s son, budding playwright Konstantin (Billy Howle), also lives on the estate, and is currently involved in a romance with local girl, Nina (Saoirse Ronan), who is his muse and the main actress in his fledgling symbolist play, which they are planning to perform for their summer visitors. Irina arrives from Moscow with her latest conquest in tow. He is the incredibly successful writer, Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll) and, therefore, a bit of a trophy for Irina to show off. Konstantin is already intensely jealous of the man’s success and that’s before Nina starts flirting outrageously with him.

Meanwhile, Konstantin is completely oblivious to the fact that the estate steward’s daughter, Masha (Elizabeth Moss), is completely besotted with him; she, in turn, is devoutly loved by impoverished local schoolmaster, Mikhail (Michael Zegen), of whom he has a very low opinion. It’s clearly going to end badly and, this being Chekov, of course, there is some tragedy waiting in the wings, but the journey towards it passes so pleasurably, it’s never feels like an imposition.

Bening’s performance as the incredibly vain and manipulative Irena, is an absolute joy, while Moss (top-billed here, no doubt because of the success of The Handmaid’s Tale) manages to make Masha’s drink-fuelled gloom at her own failings quite hilarious. Ronan is every bit as good as she always is and I particularly enjoy John Tenney’s portrayal of the pragmatic Doctor Dorn, a man who spends all of his time pouring oil onto troubled waters, consoling the lovelorn and tending the wounded.

Chekov can be a bit like medicine. You know it’s good for you and you know you really ought to have it, but he can sometimes leave a bad taste. Not here though. I can’t remember when I last enjoyed the playwright’s work as much as this.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

High-Rise

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19/03/16

In a relatively short career, British director Ben Wheatley has produced an interesting selection of films, all quite different but all in their own way, intriguing. High-Rise, an adaptation of the novel by J.G. Ballard, represents the flowering of that talent. Here is a film so packed with interesting ideas, it sometimes threatens to explode in all directions, as Wheatley throws idea after idea into the mix and hits the ‘mix’ button. While the end result is far from perfect, it’s never less than riveting. I’ve read that David Cronenberg planned to film this back in the day and it’s easy to see the attraction – some of the scenes here put me in mind of his debut feature, Shiver; but having said that, this is Wheatley’s vision and for the most part it works beautifully.

Doctor Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moves into a massive high rise apartment and attempts to make friends with the neighbours. They include the promiscuous Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller), a belligerent TV documentary maker, Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) and his pregnant wife, Helen (Elizabeth Moss). It’s clear from the very start that Laing doesn’t quite fit in, but he clearly intends to give it his best shot. He is soon summoned up to the penthouse to meet the building’s architect, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) who has created a lavish rooftop garden for his wife, Ann (Keeley Hawes) complete with flocks of sheep and a white horse for her to ride. At first, it all goes relatively smoothly, but when the tenants on the lower floors start to encounter electricity blackouts and food shortages, it’s not long before rebellion begins to spread irresistibly upwards, resulting in outbreaks of pillaging, looting and the weirdest Abba cover version you’ve ever heard.  The toffs in the top floors decide it’s time to take matters into their own hands and set about commandeering everything they can get their hands on. Laing (a typically amoral Ballard antihero), watches it all with a detached air but eventually finds himself drawn into the chaos as he tries to survive as best he can.

Ballard’s story is an obvious allegory about class and privilege and the ways in which society has to adapt to changing circumstances in order to continue. Wheatley, working as ever with his writer companion, Amy Jump, has cleverly opted to set the story in the 70s, just like the source novel, creating wonderful sets of brutalist architecture, together with some quite horrific fashion statements. The first forty minutes of this zips along with complete confidence and looks absolutely ravishing; the last third is perhaps a little less sure of itself, but having said that, there are more great ideas on offer here than you’ll see in most Hollywood movies and once again, the pace rarely falters.

The conclusion (which features the voice of Margaret Thatcher) will have you discussing the film’s message long after the final credits have rolled. Please don’t miss this one, it really is rather fabulous.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney