“Nope” (dir. Jordan Peele) – A cowboy hat trick

Poster for "Nope" (2022 film)

At the start of Nope, horse trainer Emerald Haywood (Keke Palmer) appears on a commercial set to give a well-rehearsed spiel and safety briefing about being on-set with a live animal. Emerald has been around horses and film production all her life, she explains, being the descendant of jockey Gilbert Domm, who appeared in an 1878 prototype zoopraxiscope film consisting of 24 still photos of Domm galloping on horseback. Her brother Otis “OJ” Haywood, Jr. (Daniel Kaluuya) stands awkwardly off to the side, having just failed to command the attention of the cast and crew delivering the same speech, chiming in only once to correct the number of times Emerald should say “great” before “grandfather”, because Emerald, the showier of the pair, clearly learned this speech verbatim from their late father Otis Sr. (Keith David). This is not the opening scene of the film – that one features the unlikely appearance of a blood-soaked chimpanzee – but it surely sets the tone for what will follow, because OJ spends most of the film acting comfortable around horses but uncomfortable in the life he has inherited (although his official orange crew hoodie from The Scorpion King still looks cozy after two decades). Emerald, meanwhile, bookends her briefing with a plug for all of her other entertainment projects, and tells OJ in no uncertain terms that she’s only sticking around for the side hustle of her family’s show-horse business – her prior involvement having been spurned by their late father – out of loyalty to her brother. And to the animals, of course.

Nope sets the stage with a multilayered family drama that calls to mind M. Night Shyamalan‘s 2002 alien invasion film Signs before the first UFO skitters across the sky, but it is only part of the backdrop of this film. And yet, as I attempt to compare Nope to other alien flicks, I find that this comparison really only applies to the first two acts, with alien imagery flitting back and forth just out of view in darkness. The UFO film canon has set my expectations somewhere between “they blow up the White House and then the US military blows them up” and “they show up for a quick reveal/abduction, then roll credits”. Nope doesn’t fit neatly into either extreme, and doesn’t remain in the darkness for long. It also features three other characters almost exclusively in daylight – Fry’s geek squad technician Angel Torres (Brandon Perea), intense cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), and theme park cowboy Ricky ‘Jupe’ Park (Steven Yeun). Park runs the neighboring Jupiter’s Claim western town theme park, just a short drive from the Haywoods’ ranch, and acts as neighbor, business rival, and occasional prankster. In addition to being a reliable cowboy with a harrowing past (played marvelously as a child by Jacob Kim), he is perhaps the most familiar with the pitfalls of using live animals on a film set. Angel and Antlers are multigenerational curious cats, drawn in by the allure of the Haywoods’ UFO mystery and showing up to assist for no better reason than…well, why wouldn’t you try to capture high-quality evidence of alien visitors coming to Earth? In this way, the film calls to mind another thriller with smart and capable protagonists: Mike Flanagan‘s Oculus, which also features a pair of adult siblings whose words say “nope” to the monsters at their door, but whose actions, in detail and with a great deal of planning, say yup. They may not want to be out and unprotected when the visitors show up, but they damn sure want a camera pointing at them.

Still from "Nope" (2022 film) featuring Keke Palmer as Emerald Haywood

With that planning comes the tantalizing prospect of seeing the aliens in daylight (at magic hour, if Holst gets his way), and it is in this arena that Nope is immensely satisfying, even if it takes a while to get there. As a practical matter, this means that director Jordan Peele and veteran sci-fi/horror cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Let the Right One In, Interstellar) get to spend nearly a full hour being clever but not quite showing their hand, with the mystery and aliens hidden just out of view, unseen as often because characters are willfully ignoring them as because they happened to be looking in the wrong direction. The film makes clever use of shadow and cloud (and several transforming iterations of the two), as well as sufficient intrigue with its animal performers to ensure that you’re never quite sure where to direct your gaze, or whether you’re looking at something to fear. And then, when the time comes, there they are. I will not describe the precise nature of the aliens here, except to say that the film merely begins with stereotypes and expectations and expands into ever-more-interesting territory from there. Much like the difference between angels as depicted in medieval art vs. as described in religious texts, the imagery starts conventional and veers sharply into the bizarre, to the point where the ensuing myths that are littered across our society start to make a bit more visual sense even as the aliens look more and more…well, alien. If these are the real aliens, it’s no wonder all our mythmakers could describe were gray men and flying saucers. Their cameras sucked, but they were also wise enough not to look directly at them.

That is ultimately the tension that is at play in this film, and in this way it feels thoroughly modern. We don’t dare look at the horrors surrounding us, willfully ignored and obfuscated by those with the power to affect them, but we are surely eager to capture and tweet them, even if we’re not quite sure what purpose that will serve. That is perhaps the greatest tragedy underlying Nope. Even as this glorious, stunning, well-lit footage of an honest-to-goodness close encounter is being captured, I can’t help but know, as an audience member, just how little impact this footage would have on the real world. It’d be a few minutes of infotainment – the main character on Twitter for a day, before a team of YouTubers duplicates the stunning vfx work of Guillaume Rocheron and his teams in an afternoon from a consumer-grade PC, albeit with a bit more blood, shakycam, and blurred edges. The conclusion of Emerald’s opening speech exemplifies this tension, as we see the Haywoods lead their horse away from set, to be immediately replaced with a purpose-built horse-shaped stand, clad in familiar chroma green, waiting just off to the side for the crew to remember the cardinal rule of keeping a film on time and budget: never work with children or animals (with an unspoken caveat that you can work your vfx artists to the bitter end).

Still from "Nope" (2022 film) featuring Daniel Kaluuya as Otis "OJ" Haywood, Jr.

I expect we’ll see a number of love letter to Hollywood type review quotes (between this and Tarantino’s last, the Hollywood horse ranch is getting a fairly lengthy swan song), but despite a few nods in the direction of The Industry, this is honestly a pretty straightforward creature feature, with its actions motivated by well-drawn characters dealing with an actual UFO in the sky above their house. Peele‘s last feature, Us, which also featured a suite of marvelous performances, was pilloried by comparison to his first, Get Out, for being a mere horror film. I’m being deliberately vague with this criticism because I thought it was nonsense then and now – I rather liked Us, but it is fair to say that Peele gave himself a tough act to follow. After three unique, well-drawn thrillers under his belt, he is not only a director to keep watching, but one who deserves quite as much trust as he gives to his performers and audience. Kaluuya’s turn is subdued bordering on minimalist, which fits the character nicely. Palmer is bombastic and larger than life, instantly commanding attention every moment she is on-screen. Yuen is scarred in a manner befitting Jupe’s childhood backstory, as well as (breaking the fourth wall for a moment) Yuen’s departure from that zombie show, with a scene so iconically horrific that I managed to see a clip of it more than once without trying. Perea and Wincott are surprising sources of levity, even if they more than hold their own as thriller participants.

Easily half the acting in this film is accomplished with characters slumped against interior walls, adrenaline coursing through their eyeballs, trying desperately not to look back at the thing they’re not quite sure they just saw. And then it comes again. If you can maintain patience during the first two acts – which contain no shortage of chilling moments amid an occasionally indulgent pace, the final third is where the film really soars.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #99 – “Get Out” (dir. Jordan Peele)

Poster for "Get Out"

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel check out comedian Jordan Peele‘s horror and directorial debut, and then gush (39:31).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 9 out of 10

Show notes:

  • Music for this episode is the track “Redbone” by Childish Gambino (né Donald Glover), from the film’s soundtrack.
  • The “Stop and identify” statute that we cited for New York state was N.Y. Criminal Procedure Law, §140.50. In practice, the application of this statute is highly variable, including in New York City, where it was implemented for several years as the program known as “stop and frisk,” which tended to disproportionately target African-American or Latino residents of the city.

Listen above, or download: Get Out (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

“Keanu” (dir. Peter Atencio) – An adorable kitten, and that’s all I’m prepared to concede

Poster for "Keanu"

I was first introduced to Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele by way of their prolific YouTube presence under the auspices of their Comedy Central sketch show, Key and Peele. And it is unfortunate for these two legitimately talented and likable comedians that the two sketches that everyone kept insistently sharing with me were “Substitute Teacher” – in which a black teacher mispronounces, with gradually mounting rage, all of the white kids’ names – and “East/West College Bowl“, in which the pair (and others) play a series of verbal introductions of increasingly absurdly named black college football players. Each of these sketches had sequels, which were also shared with me, and before I ever watched a single full-length episode of Key and Peele, I was left with the unfair, but nonetheless persistent impression that these two comics only had a single solid joke between them – name-based racial humor. And as amusing as I found it, I resisted watching their sketch show for a long time because of it.

That feeling came roaring back this evening as I watched the pair’s first duo feature, Keanu, written by Peele and Community alum Alex Rubens. After a pair of unnamed brothers from Allentown slaughter a gangland drug operation, one of the only survivors is a compulsively adorable kitten, who wanders off and appears on the doorstep of bong-toking lonely-heart Rell (Peele), who immediately adopts him and names him Keanu. His best friend, suburban family man Clarence (Key) takes him out for a night on the town, and before you can say “premise”, Rell’s apartment is ransacked, and his kitten is kidnapped. What begins is an odyssey of fish-out-of-water crime as the pair of milquetoast nerds try their best to play gangster and rise up through the ranks of gangland Los Angeles so they can reclaim their feline friend.

This is a rich premise for an action-comedy. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy a great deal of it, mostly owing to the persistent likability and friendship between the two leads. The pair reminded me of Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill in 21 Jump Street, with their mutual affinity never in doubt even as they are swept up in increasingly dire circumstances. Unfortunately, unlike Jump Street, Keanu is a humdrum action flick, a dull and directionless comedy, and a tonally inconsistent mess that meanders from one shallow sketch premise to the next, lingering too long on the ones that weren’t all that funny (no one will be seated during the “Gangsters listen to George Michael” scene), and blasting through the ones where the tone turns pitch-black in an instant. Late in the film, a character reminds Rell that his actions have consequences. But despite this after-school special moment, the consequences are nonsensical and short-lived.

Still from "Keanu" (2016)

I really can’t overstate how underwhelming the action was in this film. Director Peter Atencio never once instills each interchangeable slow-mo shootout with any real sense of danger or coherence, and rather than feeling like a film that didn’t quite have the budget to realize its grand ideas (looking at you, Deadpool), Keanu instead feels like a film that had just enough budget to render some extremely simplistic and uninteresting ideas that they thought sounded cool on paper. There’s a shoot-out at a mansion! With a character we just met and don’t care about. There’s a car chase, and the kitten is in danger! No, he’s not, even though he really ought to be. There’s a gun pointed at Key and Peele’s faces! *forcible yawn* Get on with not shooting them already. At least they each maybe got to do a flip off a wall?

Keanu seemed content to barrel through each of its action beats and extricate its characters with improbable plot twists or outright surreal nonsense. None of the personal stakes for the characters are spelled out in any way. Rell just broke up with his [completely unseen] girlfriend, and has no one in his life but the titular cat that he wants back at all costs. And Clarence’s family is safely off-screen with a would-be cuckhold (Rob Heubel) for 90% of the film’s runtime. Their identity crisis about whether or not either of them is sufficiently “gangster” never feels authentic for a second, as they’re both clearly nerds. And unlike, say, the lead in Rick Famuyiwa‘s Dope, they never once use their nerdery to their advantage. They just try their best to talk tough, and occasionally, accidentally do something that makes them look tough. The only character beat that comes anywhere close to justifying their persistent criminal pursuit of the cat is their visible regard and friendship for one another, and this thread wears thin quickly as they spend far more time blithely endangering each other’s lives than not.

The less said about the film’s last five minutes, the better – and after watching them, I know it seems harsh to judge a film so rigidly when it seems so determined to keep one teetering foot in Comedy World. There’s an adorable kitten that they need to find, and goldurnit, they’re gonna wander amongst some interchangeable gangsters to do it. But comedy is hard, and even a silly, fluffy mess like Sisters did a better job of telling me what these absurd characters mean to one another, and why they’re so desperate to do the Big, Dumb Thing that they mean to do by the film’s end. Keanu wasn’t Jump Street, Hot Fuzz, or The Other Guys. It wasn’t even MacGruber or Austin Powers. It was a pretty cute cat with a couple of pretty likable owners. And that’s all I’m prepared to concede.

FilmWonk rating: 4 out of 10