Within two movies, and most likely just with his first in 2017, Jordan Peele catapulted himself as a brand name in the world of horror. At this point, you’ll see a Peele horror movie sight unseen because you know what you’re getting is going to be a unique experience. There are plenty of modern horror directors that have built a rabid fandom, like Ari Aster or James Wan, but nobody seems to be given the same platform as Peele has earned at this juncture. The writer/director has become what M. Night Shyamalan used to exhibit, the director whose creative visions were each highly anticipated event movies. Nope is Peele’s first foray into science fiction territory and the results are messy, disturbing, and, at points, astounding.
The Haywood family ranch has been involved in the motion picture industry since its very beginning. One of the first film images, a black man astride a horse, was the great-great-great grandfather of Emerald (Keke Palmer) and Otis Jr. (Daniel Kaluuya). The brother and sister are trying to save the family ranch after the untimely and strange passing of their father (Keith David) who was felled by debris falling from the sky. Their neighbor, Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), is spinning his notoriety as a child actor into a Western theme park attraction. Ricky’s claim to fame was being one of two survivors of a 1990s sitcom where the trained chimpanzee, who in the context of the show was his adopted sibling, snapped and went on a killing spree. Emerald and Otis Jr. begin to suspect that there is a real unidentified flying object hanging over their land, so they set out to capture living proof and become rich and famous. The alien, hiding in an unmoving cloud over the course of six months, has other plans and intends to assert its claim on the Haywood territory.
Peele is proving himself more and more as a major director of genre spectacle and vision. Each of his three directorial efforts will hit people differently; I think they’ve incrementally gotten a little sloppier in the writing department, but Peele is only growing stronger as a visual stylist and orchestrator of big screen spookery. There is a grandeur to the visual arrangements, owing as much to the expansive language of Westerns and the awe of early Steven Spielberg. I wish I had seen the movie in IMAX as Peele intended, since he went to all the trouble of planning specific sequences for the grand IMAX cameras. There are several moments that are jaw-dropping and stirring in horror and wonder. A literal rain of blood and viscera and expelled non-organic items is a striking image. Even the unnatural way that helpless people are thrown off the ground can be jolting and primal. There’s a claustrophobic interior sequence of desperate people that really conveys the terror of the doomed. A big addition to the eerie atmosphere is the brilliant sound design. The otherworldly-ness of the alien encounters is heightened by a really in-depth sound design that can make the hairs on the back of your neck stand at attention. Even the sound of rain, and its distance, can be an indicator of the proximity of danger. There are also the distant sounds of horrible screams circling through the clouds high above, and it’s a deeply unsettling design trick that works every time. Even when the movie wasn’t quite as engaging from a narrative or thematic standpoint, Nope is always engaging on a simple delivery system of spectacle. The way Peele distributes his visual clues and keys, sometimes literally, always provides something for an audience to anticipate.
I was also starting to grow impatient from Peele’s coy narrative games. The plot moves in frustrating starts and stops, teasing an intriguing development or proffering a question and then skipping backwards, denying the viewer a sense of gathering momentum. There’s a toying sense of teasing out how far he can go before an audience gets too impatient and quits. Much of the first half also takes place during night or sequences of sustained darkness, which can definitely play into the the fear of what could be in those shadows, but it makes for a fitfully frustrating experience when you’re trying to unravel a science fiction mystery. I kept wondering how all these pieces were going to come together, especially the ongoing subplot about this killer chimpanzee, but I had faith in Peele (mostly). That faith was rewarded but I’ll admit for the first hour I was wondering if Peele was too evasive for his own good.
Nope begins as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and then transitions into Jaws and stays there, and it was during the second half that my interest magnified exponentially. It’s around the hour mark that the movie finally puts all its cards on the table and declares what it is and what the remaining movie is going to be about. All the stutter steps and vagaries are cast aside, and the movie finally shifts into its grand entertainment of a group of humans learning about an overwhelming and unusual threat and plotting their unorthodox plan of attack. I’ll still try and play around spoilers without getting too deep into specifics. It’s a great relief when Peele no longer has to tease his threads and mysteries and can at last be open and let the conflicting components come together. The annoyances I felt in the first half melted away, and I was satisfied as the movie picked up a genuine momentum and smartly tied in many prior plot elements for the bigger picture, like the inflatable tube men, old timey picture-taking souvenir machines, and even the very vague almost carwash-esque imagery from the opening credits. The second half of the movie is more fun because it’s a big hunt and it allows our characters to make use of what they have learned to form conclusions and strategic moves and adjustments. It’s characters making smart decisions. It’s a scenario that finally allows Peele to finally play with all the setups he’s spent an hour cheekily hiding around.
While the climax is great, and the movie gets consistently better, I don’t feel like all of its many thematic ties come together. Being a Jordan Peele horror movie, we’re now expecting there to be extra layers of social-political commentary and allegories. The back-story for Ricky as a child actor is given a lot of attention and screen time for a two-hour movie, and I don’t know if what it adds up to is equal to the time it was given. Thematically, you can make some speculative reaching about the exploitation of animals for spectacle, about underestimating and not respecting nature, and even setting up for later tragedy, but it all seems less meaningfully integrated than any other Peele movies’ elevated subplots. With the Ricky back-story, there is even a literal anticipation of a literal shoe to drop, which seems so obvious as a visual metaphor but I cannot link it directly with what follows. I can keep digging and find connections but it requires far more effort than Peele’s other works of horror. The family history of working for Hollywood as horse wranglers feels underdeveloped. There are also rules that it establishes that Peele isn’t fully consistent (just don’t look?) that left me questioning. I figured that colonialism would be an obvious parallel with invading aliens (H.G. Welles even made use of the analogy 120 years ago), but maybe that was too obvious territory for someone like Peele. My friend Ben had a crazy early theory that the aliens themselves would resemble horses and thus they were returning to free their equine brothers and sisters from human exploitation. I guess I’ll go ahead and spoil you, dear reader, that this does not happen in any shape with Nope.
I’d rank Nope the third best Jordan Peele horror venture, and while it clearly makes use of science fiction concepts and its rich iconography, it’s still very firmly a movie rooted in horror, the horror of the unknown, the horror of being small and helpless, the horror of being left behind. Not all of Nope’s many ambitions quite land, and the themes feel a bit more jumbled or underdeveloped, but I want Jordan Peele to continue making the movies he wants on his terms. Not every one is going to hit exactly the same for me, or for any viewer, but we’re all better when unique artists like Peele are given the latitude and support to bring their personal visions to the big screen. As long as he’s still achieving a baseline of quality, something that befell the middle Shyamalan period, then I say swing away and let’s see where you’ll take us all next, Jordan Peele.
Nate’s Grade: B
After two years and three movies sent straight to Disney’s burgeoning streaming service, Pixar returns with a theatrical movie that taps back to the very beginnings of this storied storytelling company. We’re told, via opening text, that Lightyear was Andy’s favorite movie and thus the reason he was so excited to bring home a Buzz Lightyear action figure in the first Toy Story. However, if this is Andy’s “favorite movie,” then this kid needs to be exposed to more movies. It’s an acceptable sci-fi story about Buzz (voiced by Chris Evans) learning the value of others and that being vulnerable is not the same as being weak. He’s a space ranger stranded on an alien world. Every time he attempts to restart their fuel system, it jumps him forward in time four years, and soon enough he’s a man out of time and those stranded have built a colony civilization over 100 years. There’s a band of misfits, who aren’t terribly funny, and some laser fights and action sequences, which aren’t terribly exciting, and the third act twist is predictable. The animation is top-notch, but the storytelling is definitely a few notches below infinity and beyond. What astounds me is that Andy could watch this movie and want a Buzz toy instead of the real breakout, the robotic cat Sox (voiced by Peter Sohn) who is wonderfully droll. I cannot fathom anyone watching this movie and desiring owning another character above this delightful supporting character. This movie makes me think a little less of Andy as a discerning arbiter of pop-culture zeitgeist. Lightyear is fine as escapist entertainment but too facile and inessential to the Toy Story universe.
Luck is the first animated feature from Skydance, a production company that entered the animated realm by hiring former Pixar head John Lasseter as their chief creative executive. In some ways, Luck feels reminiscent of early Pixar movies, exploring the “secret life of” those in charge of dictating the forces of luck. The problem with Luck is that it is overwritten and overburdened with world building that crushes the emotional core. We follow a young woman aging out of the foster system and she’s been besieged with bad luck all her life. She follows a talking cat and discovers a hidden world where workers mine luck crystals and have lucky pennies as portal generators and there’s a dragon, for some reason, as the CEO of Good Luck, and to get back home she needs to team up with the cat to find a thing, but to find that thing they need to go to a place, but to go to that place they need to – and you get it. The plot is overworked with a chain of tasks that explain more of this world’s mechanics without connecting to the emotional journey of the character, like in 2015’s Inside Out. I was amazed that this woman lacks even a shred of bitterness about her own trenchant bad luck. There’s a nice message about accepting the bad with the good in life, and how both are opportunities for growth, but I kept wondering why our hero didn’t once lash out at those responsible. I’m also a little hesitant about using whether a little girl will be stood up by her potential new foster family as the stakes of completing the good luck reset goal. That seems pretty heavy for wackiness. The animation isn’t quite at the level of Pixar, or the best of Dreamworks, but it’s colorful and bright even if lacking more advanced lighting and texture. Luck lacks enough gravitas and development to really appeal to adults but it’s also probably too busy and convoluted to entertain small kids.
It’s a familiar story and it may be predictable at every turn, but this movie shines when it comes to performances. Young Keke Parker plays the title super speller with equal parts fire, heartbreak, shyness, and pure glee. You easily fall in love with her and it makes her rise among the spelling ranks worth watching. Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett give stirring performances to compliment a strong cast. The new angle Akeelah has going for it is its urban education perspective, seeing Akeelah have to hide her smarts out of fear of her peers. The movie is fun, and Akeelah’s budding relationship with a fellow speller is cute as can be. Akeelah and the Bee is a smartly written and uplifting family film with a lot of heart and a dash of schmaltz. Look for “Booger” (a.k.a. Curtis Armstrong) as the inner city school principal that pins his hopes on Akeelah.
Nate’s Grade: B+