Tag: Daniel Kaluuya

Nope (2022)

Nope (2022)

Be afraid of looking in Jordan Peele’s puzzling but less enlightening horror suspense film

Director: Jordan Peele

Cast: Daniel Kaluuya (Otis Jnr “OJ” Haywood), Keke Palmer (Em Haywood), Steven Yeun (Ricky “Jupe” Park), Brandon Perea (Angel Torres), Michael Wincott (Antlers Holst), Wrenn Schmidt (Amber Park), Keith David (Otis Haywood Snr), Donna Mills (Bonnie Clayton)

Spoiler warning: Peele loves to keep ALL the plot details on the QT – so I discuss more than he would want, but hopefully not enough to spoil the plot.

Jordan Peele’s previous horror films brilliantly married up genuine chills with acute social commentary. Plot details have often been kept under wraps – after all half the joy of watching Get Out or Us the first time is working out what the hell is going on. Nope continues this trend, but for the first time I feel this is to the film’s detriment. I actually think Nope would be improved if you know going into it that this was Peele’s dark twist on Close Encounters of the Third Kind (with added body horror). Instead, Nope plays its enigmatic cards so close to its chest that it ends up never having a hand free to punch you in the guts.

Pensive and guarded Otis Jnr (Daniel Kaluuya) – known, unfortunately, as OJ – and his exuberant wanna-be-star sister Em Haywood (Keke Palmer) are trying (with differing levels of enthusiasm) to keep their father’s Hollywood horse handling business alive after his freak death from a coin falling from the sky (everyone assumes it fell from a plane). The business is struggling, with OJ forced to frequently sell their horses to their neighbour, a former child star turned ranch theme-park owner, Ricky (Steven Yeun). Their lives are altered however when they discover a huge UFO living in a cloud near their ranch, sucking up horses (and other animals) and spitting out any inorganic remains. Seeing this as their path to fortune (and in Em’s case fame) they try and capture the UFO on film.

Nope is all about our compulsive need to look. Nothing draws our eyes like spectacle – and what could be a bigger spectacle than a huge saucer in the sky that eats people? It doesn’t matter if we know we shouldn’t, our eyes are drawn up (now imagine if Peele had been able to call the film Up!). We want to be part of the big event, whether that’s seeing the latest blockbuster at the big screen or rubber-necking at a roadside accident. Nope hammers this point home, when it becomes clear you are only at danger from the saucer when you look directly at it. Spectacle literally kills!

This is all an inversion of the mid-West America that starred at the skies in wonder in Close Encounters. There the Aliens capped the film with a glorious light show with awe and wonder from the humans watching. Here the appearance in the sky is a prelude to sucking you up, digesting you and vomiting out blood and bits of clothing a few hours later. Despite this, Ricky tries to make an entertainment show out of the creature (something he, of course, learns to regret), and OJ and Em find little reason to re-think their attempts to capture the animal on screen.

Peele’s film takes a few light shots at social media culture. Of course our heroes’ first instinct is to reach for their phones (they are looking for that “Oprah shot” that will guarantee fame and fortune). OJ at least is largely motivated by the cash influx his struggling business needs – Em wants the fame. But the film still attacks the shallow “main event-ness” of social media, where having the best and most impressive thing to show off (for a few seconds) is the be-all-and-end-all.

Peele remains too fond of these characters to judge them too harshly. But he has no worries about taking shots at the fame-and-money hungry Ricky, or a TMZ reporter who arrives at the worst possible moment and dies begging to be handed his camera so he can record the moment. Arguably Ricky would have made a more interesting lead: a man chewed up and spat out by the fame machine and angling for a second chance, who thinks he’s way smarter than he actually is.

The film opens with a chilling shot of what we eventually discover was the bloody aftermath of the disastrous final filming day of Ricky’s sitcom from his childhood-acting days, Gordy’s Home. Gordy was a chimp living with an adopted family: until the chimp actor snapped in bloody fury. It sets up a sense of danger, but the plot never quite marries it up with the main themes of Nope. Parallels are thinly drawn with Ricky’s attempt to commercialise this infamous tragedy, but it feels forced: the whole section plays like a chilling short story inserted into the main narrative. And the film never explores in detail the lesson from this bloody tragedy, that we underestimate the dangers animals can pose (despite the film being littered with creatures).

Instead, Peele settles for a stately reveal of his plot. It takes almost an hour for the film’s true purpose to become clear, but it lacks the acute and darkly funny social commentary that made his previous films so fascinating while they took their time showing you their hand. Interesting points are made about how black people are (literally) whitewashed out of Hollywood’s history (the Haywoods claim to be descended from the black jockey featured in the first ever moving film made in America). But it’s a political point that sits awkwardly in a satire (about something else!), and Peele overstretches the opening without making the central mystery compelling enough.

There are, however, fine performances from the actors, Kaluuya’s shuffling physique – slightly over-weight, the troubles of the world weighing him down – is matched with his charismatically sceptical looks. Keke Palmer is engaging and funny as his slap-dash sister, and the warm family bond between these two works really well. It never quite makes sense that someone as publicity-averse as OJ would really want to become a social media sensation, but you can let it go.

There is lots of good stuff in Nope – it’s beautifully filmed and assembled and once it lets you in on its plans, it has a strong final act. But its social commentary isn’t quite sharp or thought-provoking enough – people are shallow and love spectacle and social media, who knew – and neither the mystery or the plot are quite compelling enough. It’s told with imagination and Peele has a fascinating and unique voice: but Nope isn’t much more than a solid story well told.

Widows (2018)

Widows (2018)

Sexism, racism and corruption get mixed in with crime drama in McQueen’s electric heist film

Director: Steve McQueen

Cast: Viola Davis (Veronica Rawlings), Michelle Rodriguez (Linda), Elizabeth Debicki (Alice), Cynthia Erivo (Belle), Colin Farrell (Jack Mulligan), Brian Tyree Henry (Jamal Manning), Daniel Kaluuya (Jatemme Manning), Jacki Weaver (Agnieska), Carrie Coon (Amanda), Robert Duvall (Tom Mulligan), Liam Neeson (Harry Rawlings), Jon Bernthal (Florek), Garret Dillahunt (Bash), Lukas Haas (David)

A getaway goes wrong and Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) and his criminal gang all wind-up dead and their loot burned up. Their last job was cleaning out the election fund of gangster-turned-electoral-candidate Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry). Manning believes he’s owed a debt by Harry’s widow Veronica (Viola Davis). On the hock for millions, Veronica has no choice but to recruit the widows of Harry’s gang to help her pull off the next job Harry planned: cleaning out the campaign fund of Manning’s electoral rival Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell).

Adapted from an 80s British TV mini-series, Widows has been run through Steve McQueen’s creative brain, emerging as a compelling, beautifully shot crime drama mixing social, racial and gender commentary with blistering action. It takes a traditionally masculine genre – the crime caper – and places at its heart a group of women motivated by desperation and survival rather than the lure of lucre.

What’s particularly interesting is that none of these women fit the bill of the sort of person you expect to arrange a daring heist. Viola Davis’ Veronica is a retired teachers’ union rep; Elizabeth Debicki an abuse victim, treated terribly by her husband and selfish mother; Michelle Rodriguez a shop owner desperately trying to give her kids a chance, despite her husband’s reckless gambling. Even the driver they hire, played by Cynthia Erivo, is a hairdresser and babysitter. These women are a world away from the ruthless criminals you’d expect to pull off this kind of operation.

It’s probably why they are routinely underestimated and patronised by men. Veronica is advised clear her debt by selling either everything she owns and disappear. As with the rest of the women, the world expects her to put up and shut up. These are women defined by their husbands and the expectation that their needs are subordinate to others’. Debicki’s Alice is all-but pushed into escort work by her demanding mother, while Rodriguez’s Linda is blamed by her mother-in-law for her husband’s death. But these women have a steely survival instinct that makes them determined and (eventually) ruthless enough to take this job on.

Davis is superb as a determined and morally righteous woman, whose principles are more flexible than she thinks. She efficiently (and increasingly sternly) applies her organisational skills to planning the heist, pushing her crew to adapt her own professionalism. Davis wonderfully underplays Veronica’s grief, not only at the loss of her husband but also the recent death of her son (shot by police officers while reaching to answer his phone behind the wheel of an expensive car – in front of a wall of Obama “Hope” posters, a truly striking visual image).

Her co-stars are equally impressive. Debicki has mastered the mix of vulnerability and strength behind characters like this (how many times has she played suffering, glamourous gangster molls?). Her Alice gains the self-belief to push back against those exploiting her. Rodriguez beautifully balances grief at the loss of her husband with fury at the financial hole he has left her in. Erivo gets the smallest role, but makes Bella dry, loyal and sharp. All four of them use the way men underestimate them – seeing them as widows, wives, weak or sex objects – to plan out their heist.

The reversal of gender expectations crosses over with the social political commentary McQueen wants to explore. This sometimes works a treat: the flashback to the shooting of Veronica’s son is shockingly effective. But the film’s dives into the Chicago political scene and the deep class divisions in the city don’t always have the impact they should. There is a marvellous shot – all in one take, mounted on the car bonnet – as Farrell’s Mulligan travels (in a few minutes) from a photo op in a slum back to his palatial family home, emphasising how closely extreme wealth and poverty sit side-by-side in America.

Both candidates are corrupted in different ways. Jamal Manning – a knife behind a smile from Brian Tyree Henry – is a thug talking the talk to line his pockets. Farrell’s Mulligan has more standards – and you wish for more with this fascinating put-upon son part on-the-take, part genuinely wanting to help. His domineering dad – an imperiously terrifying Robert Duvall, who wants to backseat drive his son in office – demeans his son, shouts racial slurs and bullies everyone around him. Politics: your choice is the latest off-spring of a semi-corrupt dynasty or a literal criminal.

But the film doesn’t quite find the room to explore these issues in quite as much detail as you feel it could: it’s a strong hinterland of inequality, but you want more. McQueen however, does have a gift for unique character details that speak volumes: the women’s operation is shadowed by an electric Daniel Kaluuya, as Manning’s calm yet psychotic brother, who listens to self-education podcasts on Black history and shoots people without a second thought. He, of course, underestimates the women as much as everyone else. That’s as much of a political statement as anything else: none of the men in this film seem to even begin to think that they could be in a world which is truly equal.

The film adds a late act reveal that doesn’t quite work – and the film as a whole is trying to do a little too much – but it’s a confirmation of what a gifted and superb film-maker Steve McQueen is. McQueen shoots even conventional scenes in unique and interesting ways – check out his brilliant use of mirrors throughout – uses editing superbly to set tone and is brilliant at drawing the best from talented actors. Widows is crammed full of terrifically staged scenes and gallops along with pace and excitement. It’s a fine example of a great director turning a genre film into something deeper.

Judas and the Black Messiah (2020)

Judas and the black messiah
Daniel Kaluuya excels as the betrayed Fred Hampton in Judas and the Black Messiah

Director: Shaka King

Cast: Lakeith Stanfield (Bill O’Neal), Daniel Kaluuya (Fred Hampton), Jesse Plemons (Agent Roy Mitchell), Dominque Fishback (Deborah Johnson), Ashton Saunders (Jimmy Palmer), Algee Smith (Jake Winters), Darrell Britt-Gibson (Bobby Rush), Lil Rel Howery (Judy Harmon), Martin Sheen (J. Edgar Hoover), Amari Cheatom (Rod Collins), Jermaine Fowler (Mark Clark)

In the 1960s, America was in violent turmoil. Simmering racial tensions were exploding, as a younger, politically engaged generation refused to accept the status quo of the past. Facing them was a reactionary, institutionally racist law and order system, determined to take any steps necessary to stop them. Violence was inevitable and the anger and resentments of that time still carry a powerful legacy today. It’s these emotions that Judas and the Black Messiah engages with. Impassioned and ambitious film-making, it often tries to do too much but still leaves a powerful impression.

In Chicago in 1968, Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) is a car thief and conman, who uses a faked FBI badge to steal cars. Arrested (and beaten), he is given a choice by FBI Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) – serve time for his offences or turn informant for the FBI. O’Neal is ordered to join the Black Panther Party – and to get as close as he can to the charismatic leader of the Illinois chapter, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). Hampton is radical, but also a visionary leader who is attempting to build a “rainbow coalition” that will unite black, Puerto Rican and white working classes to campaign on a wide range of social issues, from race to healthcare and education: a vision the FBI sees as a nightmare. O’Neal’s information is used to help frame Hampton, as events build inexorably towards his permanent removal.

Judas and the Black Messiah is dynamic and electric film-making. Shaka King’s film hums with righteous fury at the hypocrisy, racism and violence of the law enforcement agencies towards the Chicago black community (effectively the police are an occupying force, perpetrating violence and injustice). While not shying away from the violent response from many of the Black Panthers – including showing one white police officer executed while begging for his life – it paints an unsparing picture of the racism and cruelty of the Chicago police. Innocent black people are bludgeoned and abused. Those in the Black Panthers are framed for crimes, brutalised in prison and murdered in police custody. The outrage and fury of the film is both justified and affecting.

Simultaneously there is a powerful sense of grief at the loss of a golden opportunity – and the inspiration of a visionary leader, who could have grown to become a key figure in American history. King’s film explores the all-too-short life of Hampton before his murder. It delicately paints his charisma but also carefully establishes his vision. His recognition that social, educational and medical improvements are at least as important to ordinary black people as political rights. His attempt to build a coalition of the downtrodden, white and black. His status as the only man who could unite this coalition. His loss an incalculable tragedy for his cause and also for America.

This powerful picture is further framed by Kaluuya’s marvellous performance as Hampton. Kaluuya perfectly captures the charisma and electricity of Hampton’s public speaking, his ability to marshal words and move crowds. With a bulked-up physicality and head-cocking defiance, he wonderfully conveys Hampton’s ability to persuade and inspire, his lack of fear and passion to see justice done. But Kaluuya also makes him wonderfully human. In intimate moments with his girlfriend Deborah (very well played by Dominique Fishback), Kaluuya makes Hampton gentle, shy, even a little nervous – giving him a very real emotional hinterland that sits naturally alongside (and contrasts with) his activist public persona. This is a stunningly good performance.

It also, perhaps, unbalances the film slightly. King’s film is ambitious – but it is attempting to do too much within its two-hour runtime. This is a film that wants to explore the corruption of the law forces, the terrible plight of black Americans, the life of Fred Hampton and the story of his betrayer Bill O’Neal. It’s this final story that actually ends up feeling the least defined – and least engaging – of the film’s plot threads (unfortunate as it’s the one that gives the film its title).

None of this is the fault of Lakeith Stanfield, who gives a marvellous performance of weakness, fear, self-preservation and regretful self-loathing as O’Neal. But his relationship with Hampton never feels close or personal enough. In fact, the two of them feel very distanced from each other. The sense of the personal in the betrayal is lost. The idea of O’Neal struggling between loyalty to Hampton and his FBI handler Mitchell (who encourages O’Neal to see him as a sort of surrogate father) is weak, because we never get a real sense of a very personal link between O’Neal and Hampton, or a real sense that O’Neal is deeply conflicted about his betrayal. (Indeed, the film is reduced to explicitly telling us that O’Neal is struggling between betraying the Black Panthers and a true belief in their cause, which feels like a failure of narrative.)

Fundamentally, you could split the film into two movies. One which focuses on Hampton and in which O’Neal is little more than an extra. And another that zeroes in on O’Neal’s struggle with the FBI and fears of being caught, in which Hampton is a distant, inspirational figure. What King’s film fails to do is effectively is bring these two characters together properly. The personal nature of the relationship (and the betrayal) is lost. This isn’t Jesus betrayed by one of his disciples – more like Jesus being cashed in by someone at the temple. It’s a loss to the film.

It feels at times as if O’Neal was the original “hook” but that King became more interested – perhaps rightly – in Hampton and the tensions in Chicago (and America more widely) at the time. Similarly, the film is fascinated by the corruption of the FBI – Martin Sheen makes a chilling, latex covered, appearance as Hoover – and by questions over how far Mitchell (Plemons, decent bur fatally compromised), a relative liberal, is willing to go. In both plot lines, O’Neal is an entry point but becomes less and less the focus. It partly explains perhaps why Stanfield – clearly the “lead” – ended up joining Kaluuya in the supporting actor category at the Oscars. He may well be the lead but his story is the least compelling of the several threads here.

Judas and the Black Messiah is still hugely effective in many places. Its main weakness is in trying to juggle these various plot threads, and not always succeeding in bringing them together as well as it should. Because the O’Neal plot line needs to take up a good share of the run time – but is the thread the film seems least interested in – it does mean some of these scenes drag more than they should, making the film at times seem longer than it should. You can’t help but a feel a film that focused on Hampton alone would have been stronger. King’s film still makes powerful points – but its ideas are sometimes blunted and crowded out by its attempt to cover so much. Impassioned and ambitious, it doesn’t always completely succeed.

Queen and Slim (2019)

Jodie Turner-Smith and Daniel Kaluuya are on the run from injustice in Queen and Slim

Director: Melina Matsoukas

Cast: Daniel Kaluuya (Slim), Jodie Turner-Smith (Queen), Bokeem Woodbine (Uncle Earl), Chloe Sevigny (Mrs Shepherd), Flea (Johnny Shepherd), Sturgill Simpson (Officer Reed), Benito Martinez (Sheriff Edgar)

You could say Queen and Slim was the film of 2020 that was unlucky enough to be released in 2019. There can be few other films that have captured so effectively the injustice that the killing of George Floyd revealed to the wider world. But watching Queen and Slim reminds many of us in more privileged positions that the sort of systemic outrages that 2020 has brought to light existed for decades prior to this.

Our unnamed leads are “Queen” (Jodie Turner-Smith), a criminal defence lawyer, on an awkward Tinder date with “Slim” (Daniel Kaluuya). The date is not a huge success – possibly because the determined and ambitious Queen has little in common with the gentle, Godly and quiet Slim – but their lives are changed forever when Slim gives her a lift home. Pulled over by an increasingly aggressive police officer, innocent questions from Slim, and Queen’s challenge of his authority, lead to his gun being drawn, Queen shot in the leg and a scuffle with Slim that leaves the officer shot dead. Now wanted for killing a police officer – and convinced that their side of the story will never get an equal hearing – they go on the run. But their cause seizes the public imagination, and “the Black Bonnie and Clyde” end up inspiring others to take a stand across an unjust system.

Queen and Slim uses common conventions of a road movie: two young people on the run for a crime who discover new things about themselves and the world as they travel, drawing closer together. In that sense there is nothing too revelatory about it. Indeed half of the film’s impact – rather like Thelma and Louise – is taking expected tropes and presenting them to us from new perspectives. But what Matsoukas’ film does so effectively is to add a completely new political and social dimension to this. This road movie instead becomes a searing commentary on race in America and the injustice of the system.

Endemic unfairness runs through the entire movie. From the pulling over of the young couple at the start of the film – a search that becomes increasingly invasive and aggressive for no other reason than the officer’s reaction to their colour – to their final confrontation with a lethally trigger-happy police force, there is no fair crack of the whip for this couple. Queen’s restatement of her and Slim’s rights when pulled over is seen as a violent action. The media swiftly turn the couple into ruthless, dangerous killers. A parade of law enforcement (certainly all of the white officers) sink quickly to using crude, racially tinged stereotypes. And there is of course no question that an unjust, one-sided trial ending in (at best) a life-long prison sentence awaits this couple if caught.

But the film also shows brilliantly another side of America. On the road trip, Matsoukas’ camera captures the distant, sometimes run-down, ghettoised communities of non-White groups in America (to the extent that a traditional picket-fenced house visited late on by the couple seems like a foreign land). The camera pans through parts of America we rarely see – and also sees the communities there. These are people who know, in their hearts, that Queen and Slim are the victims here – that the police are more than capable of shooting black people who look like they might cause trouble, whether they have or not. But they also know that there is no chance of justice for them, that they are destined to become martyrs. And that like them, every Black person in America could be a breath away from falling victim to police brutality.

This gives the film a real edge, that gains extra force the more events from the news remind us that issues like this are far from fiction. It gives a political force to the film that serves as a superb snapshot of America today. Matsoukas’ film is shot with vibrant freshness and she draws a great couple of performances from the leads.

Both are contrasting souls, who find themselves drawn closer together as they slowly absorb each other’s qualities. Jodie Turner-Smith is superb as the lawyer with a chip-on-her-shoulder, whose unhappy family life has led to her putting up emotional safeguards that only slowly erode over the course of the film. In many ways the road journey gives her a freedom she has never had before – while Slim’s gentleness encourages her to express sides of herself she has kept long-hidden. Daniel Kaluuya is similarly wonderful as the devout and gentle Slim, who discovers in himself an anger and resentment at the injustice he had accepted as part of everyday life.

Queen and Slim marshals this altogether into a compelling package that will open many people’s eyes to the truth of racial politics in many parts of America – and the tensions underneath it. 

Black Panther (2018)

Chadwick Boseman is the legendary Black Panther in Marvel’s solid comic book outing

Director: Ryan Coogler

Cast: Chadwick Boseman (T’Challa/Black Panther), Michael B. Jordan (N’Jadaka/Erik Kilmonger Stevens), Lupita Nyong’o (Nakia), Danai Gurira (Okoye), Martin Freeman (Everett K Ross), Daniel Kaluuya (W’Kabi), Letitia Wright (Shuri), Winston Duke (M’Baku), Angela Bassett (Ramonda), Forest Whitaker (Zuri), Andy Serkis (Ulysses Klaue), John Kani (T’Chaka)

Marvel’s comic book world is now so stuffed with characters, worlds and dimensions that it is remarkable how many of its heroes are white and male. Black Panther does something completely different, giving us a set of African heroes and placing the common framework of a Marvel film within a very proud, and distinct, African heritage. So you can pretty much guarantee you ain’t seen a comic book film quite like this one.

After the death of his father (in Captain America: Civil War), T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) becomes king of the secretive nation of Wakanda. Camouflaging itself as a poor and unadvanced nation in order to avoid interaction with the rest of the world, Wakanda has in fact for centuries been mining a remarkable metal, vibranium, that has helped the nation become hugely technologically advanced. Its king also bears the responsibility of being the “Black Panther”, ingesting a vibranium-infused herb to gain superhuman speed and strength. However, others have their eye on the throne, not least Erik “Kilmonger” Stevens (Michael B Jordan), who wants to turn Wakanda into a force that could protect the black people of the world from their historical oppressors and avenge centuries of slavery.

Black Panther never fails to be entertaining. The film is shot with a genuinely vibrant excitement, and I love the way it proudly embraces a comic book twist on African tribal heritage. In fact the film’s depiction of an African nation which is secretly the most powerful and advanced nation in the world is really quite an impressive political statement.

Ryan Coogler directs the film with flashy brilliance and comes up with a few ways of presenting what are (essentially) action sequences we’ve seen many times before in unique new ways. The stand-out is an early action scene in a Korean bar, filmed to appear as an immersive single take around a large set, the camera dipping and zooming from character to character. Coogler also brings a fair amount of visual wit to the fights while not losing the emotional and character depth the story is aiming for.

The film also has some fine performances, with Boseman dripping dignity, nobility and decency as T’Challa. Regular Coogler collaborator Michael B. Jordan gives a great contrast as bitter LA slums kid turned misguided would-be dictator Kilmonger. Danai Gurira stands out as proud general Okoye, torn between duty and personal loyalties. Hell even Forest Whitaker – clearly loving every moment of this OTT Marvel world – gets some weight and dignity out of his typical grandstanding style.

It’s another mark for the film that the world of Wakanda is so effectively gender neutral. Kings of Wakanda have a Praetorian Guard of female warriors, most of the leading voices on its council are women, and its technical genius is T’Challa’s sister Shuri (played by Letitia Wright in a charming, star-making performance). Sure it doesn’t feel like the role of Black Panther himself is up for grabs for anyone lacking a penis, but this is a world where women are equal, if not leading, partners in the action.

The film also addresses issues of post-colonial struggle, not least attitudes towards slavery and oppression handed out to Africa over centuries. Kilmonger’s fiendish plot is, in many ways, actually quite sympathetic – he wants to use Wakanda’s resources to protect those of African descent across the world. Jordan gets some good moments from his speeches laced with anger at the historical treatment of Afro-Caribbeans and, to be honest, it’s hard not to see his point. So hard in fact that the film has to drop hints that Kilmonger is a potential tyrant to stop him from seeing too reasonable. 

This is where the film’s plot starts to get slightly hazy. The character arc of T’Challa himself is pretty unclear. Traditionally in these films, the character must embrace his destiny. Problem is, a lot of this arc was covered in Captain America: Civil War. The writers are unable to give him a truly compelling replacement arc here. T’Challa drops a few references early on to not feeling ready – but basically swiftly embraces it. He never outlines a real alternative agenda to Kilmonger – there are characters in the film who argue “Wakanda doesn’t get involved in the world”, but he isn’t one of them, so there is no journey towards engagement with the outside world (on far more humanitarian terms than Kilmonger advocates). 

Frankly, Okoye is given a better character arc than T’Challa, beginning by advocating “we must serve the throne and respect our traditions even if we doubt them”, and learning later to follow her own conscience. T’Challa, in contrast, is no discernibly different at the end of the film to how he was at the beginning. 

T’Challa’s journey is basically getting something, losing it and then getting it back. Strip away Boseman’s performance and the character is basically pretty dull. He partly suffers, as does the rest of the film, from an overstuffed cast spreading the focus of the film far too thinly and leading to character arcs and interconnections feeling rushed. Kilmonger’s connection with T’Challa is forced – they only know each other for at best two days! – and there is a superfluity of villains. There’s not only decoy antagonist Klaue (and his gang) hanging about for a good chunk of the film, but also Daniel Kaluuya’s ill-defined best friend turned opponent, W’Kabi. Combining Kilmonger and W’Kabi would have helped no end, allowing two different, divergent agendas to develop and cause a relationship rift between two friends (Kaluuya is instead totally wasted in a nothing part, whose allegiances change depending on the demands of the plot). 

The good guys fare no better: Lupita Nyong’o is completely wasted as a love interest who feels stuffed into the movie because, y’know, these films gotta have one. She does nothing in the film that could not be easily done by another character, and nearly all of T’Challa’s emotional scenes – and personal motivation – are tied into his sister rather than this are-they-aren’t-they-a-couple. 

It’s all part of the traditionalism that underlies the film. Its structure is familiar and, like many Marvel origin films, the villain is a dark reflection of the hero with similar skills. The final battle is traditional and a little dull (and feels very similar to Avengers: Infinity War). The film avoids showing T’Challa torn between isolation and intervention – he in fact advocates both in the first 15 minutes – and doesn’t really make much of the prospect of a hero changing his mind or developing his views to embrace a wider world.

But it stands out because it is different. And it deserves no end of praise for making such a film so full of love and respect for its heritage. It walks a very difficult line between enjoying the bright exotic colours while not making the film patronising or overly “other-worldly”. How many other Hollywood films have, at best, two white characters (well played in both cases by Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis)? How many others would dare have the villain make a defiant, sizzling and emotionally inspirational speech about racial oppression and the hypocrisy of the West (though the film goes easy on America, with the speech taking place at the hilarious “Museum of Great Britain”. Where is this place – please get my tickets!).

That it slightly dodges and fudges the implication of these themes in its plotting and the conception of its hero – who is basically a dull character played by a charismatic actor – doesn’t reduce its pleasure at doing something different. I’m not sure it will stand up to repeated viewings – look past the setting and it does little new – but it’s a worthy entrance in a crowded universe.

Get Out (2017)

Daniel Kaluuya finds himself well out of his depth in Get Out

Director: Jordan Peele

Cast: Daniel Kaluuya (Chris Washington), Allison Williams (Rose Armitage), Catherine Keener (Missy Armitage), Bradley Whitford (Dean Armitage), Caleb Landry Jones (Jeremy Armitage), Stephen Root (Jim Hudson), Lakeith Stanfield (Logan King), Lil Rel Howery (Rod Williams), Marcus Henderson (Walter), Betty Gabriel (Georgina)

Really great genre film-making transcends its genre, while demonstrating all its strengths. Get Out is nominally a horror film, but strangely it didn’t feel quite like that while I was watching it. It’s more of a horror-inflected social drama with lashings of satire and commentary on race in America. It’s a smart, deeply unsettling film, which really makes you think about how racism has subtly developed in America over the past 100 years. It also manages to feel very much like a film caught at the turning point between Obama and Trump.

Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) is a young, black photographer dating wealthy white Rose Armitage (Allison Williams). He reluctantly agrees to spend the weekend with her family on their countryside estate. Rose’s parents, neurosurgeon Dean (Bradley Whitford) and hypnotherapist Missy (Catherine Keener) are almost overly welcoming and in expressing their liberal credentials. Chris is doubly unsettled that the Armitages’ house has two black workers, both of whom seem alarmingly compliant. The weekend coincides with an annual get-together the Armitage family hosts, where the guests (all rich and white) make comments to Chris admiring his physique, build, sporting ability and genetic advantages. Chris can sense something is wrong – but can’t even begin to guess the mystery at the heart of the Armitage house.

Get Out is, more than anything else, a film about racial politics in America. It trades in the unsettled discomfiture some liberal white people feel when they actually have to interact with a black male from a different background, and then inverts this into a horror. But it rings true: the father so keen to be seen as liberal he uses the phrase “my man” repeatedly, praises Obama, shows off his “multi-cultural art”, delightedly repeats stories about Jesse Owens; the guests at the party who pinch Chris’ muscles, and praise his physique. It feels like a situation where Chris is invited but not welcome. 

In turn, it also inverts the discomfort some black people feel in white middle-class society. Chris finds his hosts patronising and condescending in their desire to be seen as open-minded. He’s uncomfortable at the black staff. Every second in the house reminds him that he doesn’t belong there. But the genius of Peele is that this could be nothing to do with anything except seeing a black man being constantly made aware of his difference in an unfamiliar milieu. 

Chris though, being basically a decent guy, does what any polite person in a minority tends to do: he works overtime to put his hosts at ease. He keeps quiet, he smiles, he laughs at jokes,  he tries to gently drift away. As almost the sole black person, he’s lost and out-of-his-depth and comfort zone (he’s reluctant about even going). All the other black people he meets are strange – Peel brilliantly shows the mixed messages from the servants in particular. In one brilliant sequence Georgina, the maid, says everything is fine while smiling and simultaneously crying. A black party guest dresses and behaves like the rest of the white people around him: has he just completely assimilated or is there something sinister going on here? Chris might guess more – but until it’s too late he decides to batten down the hatches and ride out an awkward weekend.

The house has plenty of mystery – there is a throw-away reference to a locked off-limits basement. Early in the film the couple hit a deer with their car: the police demand to see Chris’ ID even though he wasn’t driving, to the outrage of Allison. It’s a brilliantly eerie opening that hints at danger to come, both in the corpse of the deer and the suspicion of the police. It’s a brilliant touch to explore the barely acknowledged underlying racism of some middle-class Americans – this liberal elite would be horrified to hear the suggestion that they are anything but open-minded, but in fact have deeply paternalistic, two-tier beliefs that have subtly developed since the end of segregation.

The film is played superbly by the whole cast. Bradley Whitford brilliantly inverts his Josh Lyman persona. Catherine Keener is a sort of warm Earth Mother figure, with darkness and control under the surface. Both characters seem suspicious and yet are both so open and direct in what they say, you think it’s almost too obvious to assume they are villains. Caleb Landry Jones as their son is both full of alpha-male welcome and strange, violent and scornful looks and yearnings. Allison Williams as Chris’ girlfriend seems a strange presence in this household, but her honest sympathy for Chris, and her growing realisation with him that something is wrong, is the one thread Chris has to hang onto.

The star-turn of the movie is of course though Daniel Kaluuya as Chris. A young British actor, he’s superb here in a reactive role, trying to persuade himself everything is fine. His unease and insecurity are brilliantly done, as are the surface humour and reserved politeness he uses to disguise this. In a paranoid film, he is going out of his way to not appear paranoid. His relief in seeing any other black people – and then confused discomfort at their behaviour – is endlessly brilliant. As the plot progresses, Kaluuya takes Chris to some dark and emotional places, conveying both despair, fury and pain brilliantly. 

Peele’s film is not perfect. Introduce a character as a hypnotist and you are probably tipping the hat a little too soon – though to be fair, Peele even lampshades this by having Chris’ friend Rod (a hilariously endearing Lil Rel Howery) immediately point this out. The explosion of violence when it comes at the end is gratifying, but a little too much almost for a film about lack of power. The DVD contains an alternative ending that is, in fact, far better and more appropriate, which continues this theme (and is what I expected the ending to be as the film entered its final act) but was replaced because Peele felt (he says on the commentary) it needed a more upbeat ending.

Get Out though is both an excellent paranoia thriller with lashings of horror, and also a brilliant satire on race in America. Trading on the comedy of embarrassment, it has genuine things to say about how the racial divide hasn’t really gone away at all. Both funny and also deeply terrifying, its final reveal of what is going on is brilliant and also rings very true – as well as casting new light on several scenes we have already seen. Peele is a first-time director – but based on this he certainly won’t be one and done.

Sicario (2015)

Emily Blunt goes to war with the Cartels, not realising she’s just a pawn.

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Cast: Emily Blunt (Kate Macer), Benicio del Toro (Alejandro Gillick), Josh Brolin (Matt Graver), Daniel Kaluuya (Reggie Wayne), Maximiliano Hernández (Silvio), Victor Garber (Dave Jennings), Jon Bernthal (Ted), Jeffrey Donovan (Steve Forsing), Raoul Trujillo (Rafael), Julio Cedillo (Fausto Alarcón)

The War on Drugs. Smack a military title on it and it helps people think that there is some sort of system to it, that it carries some sort of rules of engagement. Whereas the truth is that it is a nebulous non-conflict where the sides are completely unclear and the collaborators are legion.

Sicario follows a shady covert operation, run by a combination of the FBI, the CIA, Columbian and Mexican law enforcement and, well, other interested parties. Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is recruited to the task force because someone with her experience is needed, and finds herself working for maverick, almost pathologically unconcerned, CIA man Matt Graver (Josh Brolin). Graver, in turn, is working closely with a South American freelance operative (Del Toro) whose background and goals remain a mystery to Kate. Far from a clear targeted operation, Kate slowly realises the operation is effectively an off-the-books black op, which she has almost no control or influence over.

Villeneuve has directed here an accomplished, if rather cold, thriller. It denies its audience the release of action, the reassurance of justice or the satisfaction of integrity being rewarded. Instead the film takes place in a hazy never-world, never fully explained to either the viewer or Kate (our surrogate), where it gradually becomes almost impossible to tell who is working for whom and for what reasons – and there is a feeling that those in the film don’t know either.

The whole film has a sense of Alice in Wonderland about it (at the end of the film our heroine literally goes down a tunnel into a strange new land). Emily Blunt’s Kate seems at first to be on the ball, but events throughout the film demonstrate time and again that she is hopelessly out of her depth and little more than a fig leaf to enable her new bosses to bend laws to breaking point. Instead the world she finds herself in is dark, unsettling, confusing and lacks any sense of clear moral “sides”.

In fact, that is one of the most interesting things about this movie. It presents a female lead who is constantly manipulated and defeated throughout the film. Kate is in fact totally ineffective throughout and serves no real narrative purpose to the events of the film other than allowing those events to take place. At the same time, she’s strong-willed, she’s determined and she’s fiercely principled, as well as being an engaging character (helped immensely by Emily Blunt’s empathetic and intelligent performance).

This works so well because Kate represents what we would normally expect in a film – we keep waiting for that moment where she makes a successful stand, or blows the scandal open, or brings someone to justice – this never happens. Instead the film is a clear indication of the powerlessness of the liberal and the just in a world of violence, aggression and corruption – that people like Kate will always be steamrollered by people who are willing to smilingly do anything to achieve their goals and don’t play by any semblance of rules that we would recognise. In a more traditional film, she would end the film arresting some (or all) of the other characters with a defiant one-liner. Instead, she never lays a glove on anyone.

The flip side of her naïve optimism here is Benecio Del Toro’s nihilistic, dead-behind-the-eyes mysterious freelance operative. Del Toro is magnetic here, his character a dark mirror image of the role he played in Traffic, as if that character witnessed every kid he watched playing baseball in that film gunned down before him. He’s like a dark growly end-justifying-the-means shark, who conveys just enough of a flicker of paternal interest in Kate (does he see her as a reminder of what he used to be like?) to show there is someone still human in there. He prowls the edges of scenes before seizing the movie by the scruff of the neck in the final quarter with horrifying brutality.

Del Toro’s rumpled smoothness is a perfect match for the ink jet blacks and bright desert shine of this wonderfully photographed film. Roger Deakin’s cinematography is beautiful to look at and also rich with variation and imagination – from bleached out, hazy mornings to red dawns, from subterranean tunnels to neon lit nightclubs, Deakins presents images in striking new ways. The use of sound is also brilliant in the film – lingering, unsettling silences throughout slowly give way to Jóhann Jóhannsson’s beautiful spare score. There are fine supporting performances from Maximiliano Hernández as a doomed cop, sleepwalking through a corrupt life, Daniel Kaluuya, who is very good as an even more idealistic FBI agent who thinks he understands the world better than he does, as well as from Josh Brolin and Victor Garber.

Sicario offers no comfortable answers. In fact, it offers almost no answers at all. The world it shows us is one where there is no conventional right or wrong, only attempts to control the chaos. Our expectations as a viewer are so persistently subverted that it almost demands to be seen twice to truly understand what sort of story it is actually trying to tell. This helps to make it a cold and distancing film – but it lives in a cold, distant world where sometimes you reach the final frame and only then begin to understand who the baddies might have been and how you’ve only helped funnel the badness towards a controlled point rather than slow down or stop it.