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Nope (2022)

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

Killer Raccoons 2: Dark Christmas in the Dark (2020)

Dear reader, I already know what your first question is regarding the title of this low-budget, schlocky comedy, and yes, there actually was a first Killer Raccoons movie. Back in 2005, writer/director Travis Irvine and his pals made Coons! Night of the Bandits of the Night for only $5,000 and their slasher killer was a team of trash-eating, nocturnal mammals with a bad rap. It got a small DVD release from Troma Studios and would be considered a success by any modest standards of genre filmmaking. For whatever reason, Irvine decided he had more raccoon-related mayhem to indulge and got his friends back together to make a sequel 15 years later. Filmed throughout Ohio in 2018, the end result is Killer Raccoons 2: Dark Christmas in the Dark (it seems in the ensuring decade, somebody wised up about not having “coons” as a title). As with other Ohio-based indies, I do happen to know several people involved in this local production but I will be doing my best to write an objective, bias-free review of… a killer raccoons movie. That might be one of the most absurd sentences I’ve ever written in my years as a film critic.

Ty Smallwood (Yang Miller) has just gotten out of prison after the events of the first film. He’s looking to start a new life, prefers to go by Casey, and has plenty of people unable to recognize him (it’s a different actor from the first film). Casey is meeting Darlene (Evelyn Troutman), the little sister of one of the women killed at that fateful campsite 15 years ago. They’ll better get to know one another over one long train ride home for the holidays. Ranger Rick Danger (Mitch Rose, also a different actor) has other plans. He and the other surviving members of the summer camp have hijacked the train with help from raccoons wielding automatic weapons. Ranger Danger plans on holding the nation’s government hostage (the mayor of their small town is now the Secretary of Defense) with a super phallic death laser satellite operated in space by trained raccoons (why? Who cares?). Casey teams up with a steward, Double A (Ervin Ross), and they go car-to-car trying to rescue passengers, evade armed raccoons, and thwart Danger’s evil catastrophic plans.

Somebody actually went and made a schlocky beat-for-beat parody of 1995’s Under Siege 2: Dark Territory, and I have yet to process whether this is a commendable act of unusual comedy obsession or simply a folly with no real appeal but to the smallest of fringe audiences. The Under Siege sequel was another DieHard-in-a-place setup happening miraculously again (this time on a train!) with Steven Seagal as its leaden lead, so devoting the plot structure to reminding people about the existence of this movie and its many low-points seems, in some sense, like the kind of hyper-specific meta ironic comedy you’d find in an Adult Swim special. In my own comedy writing, I rekindled an old TV series from the 90s that was unceremoniously cancelled after eight episodes (The 100 Lives of Captain Black Jack Savage), leaving its 100-countdown mission unfinished and dangling in my mind until I wrote my own conclusion. Re-examining some forgotten relic of personal pop-culture, especially something built around silly and stupid, is a fine starting point for a comedy riff. However, the expectation is that more will be done than serving as a reminder of that inspiration. If you’re simply re-creating the beats of the source to completion then what exactly is the point? Nobody needs a crummier version of an already crummy movie. That’s where Killer Raccoons 2 goes awry. It’s so committed to recreating Under Siege 2, including exact character roles, names, and many dialogue repetitions, that you could have removed the killer raccoons completely. I even started watching Under Siege 2 again for this review simply to determine if the pixelated spy camera nudity used in the opening to demonstrate the satellite’s telephoto prowess was exactly the same stock footage used in the actual movie (they are separate people; you’re welcome, world). Killer Raccoons 2 is more an inexplicably fixated parody than a goofy killer animal comedy, and that is a major letdown of imagination.

Let me give you an example of the disappointing complacency of too much of the comedy. The hijackers (all sporting an eye-patch, a stylish motif I did enjoy) are trying to find Darlene among the passengers since they now know she has value with her relationship to Casey. Darlene says she’ll adopt a disguise and she literally arranges a strand of hair to lay across her face like a fake mustache. Now this is a silly, obviously transparent disguise but it shouldn’t be the end of the joke. A better extension would be since we expect it to be so flimsy that it somehow works and the hijackers cannot tell the difference. Then the hair strand could drop and the hijacker would express immediate confusion and alarm, only for Darlene to place it back in place, and the hijacker’s worry replaced yet again (“There was another woman just here.”). It’s one idea but it’s an idea, building off subverting expectations and then developing the setup to build into something more. The problem with Killer Raccoons 2 is that there aren’t any real comic set pieces, no really well-structured scenarios that can make you smile from their very inception about what will transpire. The closest is an improvised fight with whatever household kitchen items are available, at one point pitting waffle maker against waffle maker. Much of the humor is so obvious that the obvious nature is itself the joke, like the chintzy special effects, bad wigs, and copious amount of penis jokes (the deadly satellite is named the “PEN-15”). However, there’s a fine line between an obvious joke being funny and the filmmakers pointing it out. There are too many times where characters literally explain jokes or point out the absurdities.

This is a 96-minute comedy when, in all honesty, it could have even been pared down to 80 minutes. The pacing can feel slack and many confrontations can stretch on, circling the same obvious joke. Even moments that work, like the improvised fight, go on too long and without sustained energy. There are way too many plot beats from Under Siege 2 distilled here (the Seagal movie is only a couple minutes longer). There are too many characters involved in the action too. I’m shocked how much effort Irvine has gone to in order to bring characters and story points from the original into this unexpected sequel. It’s been 15 years so I can’t imagine there was much demand for fidelity to not just Killer Raccoons 1 but also Under Siege 2. The most useless character is a painfully protracted cameo by the likes of aging porn star Ron Jeremy. I understand the appeal from a marketing standpoint of having a celebrity “name,” but the movie would have been better served with Jeremy making his contractual appearance and then hastily departing. The movie’s humor dies a tragic death every strained second he is regrettably onscreen.

As a hit-or-miss comedy, there are moments that had me genuinely laughing, mostly because of the exuberance of its go-for-broke cast. There were repetitions that would occasionally make me giggle, like referring to Darlene’s “dead sister he lost his virginity to,” or the emphasis on “for real dead for real” with characters always surviving insane mishaps through two movies. There are the occasional moments were a sudden escalation in violence against the raccoons got me to laugh. When the film is being silly, it has a charm where the goofiness and cheap budget enhance the entertainment value (“While this spoon appears to be harmless, it’s actually really super-hot”). Take for instance Ranger Danger furiously typing in the air but with no keyboard present. The sight itself is good enough to earn a quick goofy smile, but if the movie were to comment upon it, then the joke would just seem ruined. It’s that character that, by far, brought me the most laughter. The character of Ranger Danger is a twangy hoot chiefly because of the comic timing and impressive gusto of debut actor Mitch Rose. He takes okay jokes and adds such professional polish that got me to laugh out loud (“A gazillion dollars?” “I just… look, I made up a number”). Several of his line deliveries are pure wonders (everything about the golden VHS tape he so reveres), and he’s the kind of capable comic actor that could be the anchor of a bigger vehicle. Somebody get this man more work in the funny industry, pronto. Yang Miller (Huckleberry) is also deserving of praise by playing his self-serious loner hero so serious that he’s oblivious to his own ineptitude.

I don’t have to over-complicate this. By its overly verbose title alone, you’ll know if you have any interest in Killer Raccoons 2: Dark Christmas in the Dark. It’s a goofy comedy that’s proudly low-budget, lowbrow, and low on ambition. It’s a sequel to a movie nobody likely saw, religiously parodying an action movie that hardly anyone remembers, and it’s filled with little raccoon puppets that could have easily been ditched for what they add to the overall comedy. I’m a little shocked there aren’t more tasteless exploitation elements present, like gratuitous nudity, over-the-top gore, and more envelope-pushing crude humor. Killers Raccoons 2 feels decidedly juvenile but not quite transgressive. It’s not going to be a great experience but the hits might outnumber the misses, especially if your sense of humor is attuned to the likes of schlocky Troma movies, Conan O’Brien, and late-night Adult Swim. It’s that combination of trash and irony that can prove blithely appealing, though I wish Irvine had put more effort into his comedy compositions. It feels weird to lament what could have been with a title like Killer Raccoons 2, but this just could have been funnier. A strange side note is that Irvine ran as the libertarian candidate for governor in Ohio in 2018. There’s a lazy joke to be had about him running the government the way he makes his movies, but I’m not going to stoop to that level. That’s for Killer Raccoons 3.

Nate’s Grade: C

Birdemic: Shock and Terror (2010)

Ever since the organic, years-in-the-making cult ascent of The Room, every blogger and journalist has been trying to scour the world of inept cinema to crown the next great worst movie of all time. We all want to be kingmakers of camp. In the summer of 2009, After Last Season mystified audiences and seemed like it could be an excellent camp candidate, until people actually saw the film and discovered that it was more painful awful than pleasurable awful. Then a few months ago a new contender emerged — Birdemic: Shock and Terror. The extremely low-budget ($10,000) film, curiously dubbed a “romantic thriller,” is the THIRD film from writer/director/former software engineer James Nguyen. The Sundance Film Festival rejected his aviary masterpiece in 2009 but that didn’t stop Nguyen. He took a van, decorated it with (fake) dead birds, drove around promoting the film with the aid of screeching eagle cries, enticing people to come inside and watch the movie (sounds like the first reel of a serial killer film to me). The magic mixture of romance and eco terror has captured the interest of major media outlets like The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, The Guardian, USA Today, BBC News, The Wall Street Journal, CBS News and ABC News, and the collective sugar-high rush to judgment says that Birdemic is “the worst film of all time.” Naturally, I had to see anything that vies for that hallowed honor.

For a movie citing the shock and terror of birds, it may be something of a shock that, short of a poorly rendered CGI dead bird on the beach, the first 40 minutes of this movie are absent the titular winged creatures. The first half of this movie is a mostly boring yet hugely personally eventful week for Rod (Alan Bagh) and Nathalie (Whitney Moore), our witless leads. Rod scores million dollar sales at his software company, which leads to Oracle buying the company for a billion dollars. He also successfully finds a venture capitalist to invest $10 million in his own solar panel startup. Nathalie, Rod’s high school classmate, is an underwear model. She goes from a photo shoot –in a one hour photo store in a strip mall!– to the cover of the Victoria’s Secret catalogue. They meet at a diner and then go on a series of dull dates, culminating in Rod responding to a goodnight kiss on the cheek with the request of going upstairs in her apartment (total misread of the signs). Regardless, Nathalie tells her mother that Rod is a special guy who’s not just interested in one thing, conveniently ignoring the end of the date. He meets mom and then after a night of hilariously, uncoordinated Caucasian dancing at a vacant bar, the two decide to consummate the relationship in the most romantic fashion possible — a seedy motel bedroom. And yes, they both have homes. It was at this point that I checked my watch and yelled, “Where the hell are the birds already?!”

It is after the off-screen lovemaking that the birdemic finally strikes. The next morning, for no discernable reason, birds turn into kamikaze agents and dive-bomb gas stations, cars, homes, and whatever else, causing explosions citywide. Rod and Nathalie team up with another motel pair, Ramsey (Adam Sessa) and Becky (Catherine Batcha), who conveniently have a stash of high-powered automatic weapons in their van. The gang fights their way to the van and then the rest of the movie turns into a series of mini-adventures finding victims and survivors of the birdemic.

I will give Mr. Nguyen his due. His clueless naiveté is endearing, which makes the movie much easier to appreciate. Plus, unlike the filmmakers behind After Last Season, Nguyen has at least a competent idea of how movies are supposed to work. He doesn’t have any visual talent but he at least knows how camera compositions are supposed to be established, how editing orients the audience, and how to construct a story that people can at minimum follow. This is not intended as backhanded compliments, just another reminder at how monstrously appalling After Last Season was. It’s gotten to the point that basic competency is considered a virtue. Nguyen knows basic cinematic rules and the visual vocabulary that goes with cameras. He doesn’t have the skill to do anything else. The film was shot on DV and yet it constantly has focus issues. Characters will be stationed at distances that render them blurry. If Nguyen had a focus limit, why have the actors routinely wander outside that safe zone and into the blurry reaches of nothingness? Then there will be moments where it is painfully obvious that the background is a green screen, but why was that necessary? Nguyen will have two characters sit down at a restaurant, and then the rest of the table conversation will be green screen. That has to be the weakest excuse for a green screen ever (“We couldn’t afford to shoot people sitting at a table for an extended period of time”).

The editing is frequently choppy, jumping around to disorient the viewer, breaking visual rules of geography, but the editing seems on a timed delay. Every new shot/scene seems to start three seconds later than it should. The worst offense in the whole movie is the sound quality. Clearly using only the built-in microphone from his camera, Nguyen allows great portions of his movie to be un-listenable. A day at the beach turns into listening to the wild howl while it obscures all dialogue.

Birdemic has all the requisite components that make up a delightfully bad movie: bad acting, bad dialogue, plot holes, bizarre directorial and script decisions, and extreme awkwardness. For an outbreak of killer birds, everybody seems so resolutely casual about this aviary apocalypse. There is no sense of urgency or danger; characters will stroll in their walks and frequently make outdoor pit stops. One female character is killed after she wanders needlessly far from the safety of the van to pee. They didn’t decide that an indoor bathroom would be safer? The gang also decides to wander through a crowded forest, a habitat that might, you know, attract birds. Then there’s the careless frolic on the beach, again needlessly far from the refuge of the van. Rod is held up by one motorist for gas (yes, society has broken down that far in hours, and yet you can watch hundreds of cars pass along the other half of the road, foolishly driving toward the birdemic and their doom). But then Rod leaves behind the full gas container and hops back into the van, escaping a not so imminent bird attack. They keep venturing to outdoor areas to escape an enemy that utilizes the sky. They even have a picnic! In short, these people are dumb.

But, to be fair, maybe they’re reacting with such relaxation because the birds are more laughable than intimidating. Nguyen recycles the same low-rent special effects of birds mysteriously levitating. They flap their wings but don’t ever seem to be moving. These CGI creatures look like early computer effects from the 1990s. These birds seem to explode on impact. I wouldn’t be too alarmed, either. When the gang leaves the motel, the bids hover and squawk, and some characters use coat hangers to swing away their non-moving antagonists. Ramsey doesn’t even try to fight them off after a few seconds. He just stand there while the birds fail to do anything. They keep appearing in swarms, though they seem to purposely be following our band of dumb characters. The second half of this movie mostly follows characters shooting and driving. You start to anticipate that the Duck Hunter dog is going to appear at some point and pick up the fallen carcasses and snicker. Avatar, this ain’t.

To call any of this acting would be a generous use of the term. Moore, as Nathalie, might actually be a plausible actress. She handles the material the best. Her onscreen love interest, on the other hand, is astoundingly bad. Bagh has mastered the aloof, dead-eyed stare, which he uses as his specialty. When Rod first meets Nathalie he gazes in one long unbroken stare, which communicates more “Did I leave the gas on?” then, “Is that the girl I sat behind in an English class and never talked to?” Bagh seems to have learned his lines phonetically because his line delivery is steeped in a singsong rhythm. The dialogue is mostly short exclamations that give no indication of character or plot. It’s hard to gauge the acting ability of clear non-actors in a trashy movie. It’s all a sliding scale.

Nguyen has been working on the story of Birdemic for five years. This labor of love was also Nguyen’s platform to make mankind think about its effect on the environment. Yes, the movie has all sorts of environmental messages squeezed in, where characters debate the ecological motivations of the bird attacks. A Tree Hugger (that’s his literal screen credit) theorizes that the birds are fighting back to protect Mother Nature, that’s why they seem to go after cars and gas stations. A doctor in Canada (we’re informed that the van leaves the country by watching it drive past an arrow pointing to the U.S. border written in sidewalk chalk) theorizes that the birds from Canada were infected with the notorious bird flu, and then it spread south. The doctor also gets the opportunity to declare man the most deadliest threat of them all, thus fulfilling a sci-fi disaster movie requirement. The TV news alerts about the peril of global warming, and even though the film is set in 2008, the characters see An Inconvenient Truth at the theaters (“An important movie!”). The environmental message doesn’t begin to approach cohesive commentary.

As I was watching, I got the weird impression that Nguyen had been commissioned to film a tourist video for the city of Half Moon Bay, California. Then somewhere along the line the promotional project was scuttled and Nguyen looked at his assembled footage and said, “Well, why not make the most of it?” Ladies and gentlemen, Birdemic: Shock and Terror is “the most of it.” There are numerous scenes that serve no purpose other than highlighting some of the offerings of Half Moon Bay, from the quaint local shops, to the lighthouse, to its beaches and natural beauty, truly Half Moon Bay is where you want to spend your next vacation. There are pointless scenes of extended driving. The first three minutes of this movie is watching Rod drive to the office from the scenic view of his dashboard. The opening sequence mirrors Manos: The Hands of Fate, which began with over 10 minutes of uninterrupted driving shots. The opening is even more mind numbing because Nguyen plays the same 55-second piece of music over and over. So the next time you’re driving through California, think about stopping in Half Moon Bay, home of the world-famous birdemic.

Now comes the inevitable, and somewhat subjective part, where the critic must place Birdemic upon the scale of Absolute Awful ranging worst of the worst (Manos: The Hands of Fate) to the best of the worst (The Room). The people behind Birdemic are trying to streamline the cult phenom process. It premiered in New York City in early 2010 and is already being funneled to many markets. It all feels a little too manufactured for my tastes, like the media is so eager to be ahead of the hipster curve. Birdemic is a perfectly enjoyable laugh-out-loud experience best had with a bunch of your friends and perhaps some adult beverages. It’s a fine piece of derisive entertainment thanks to the sincerity of Nguyen. But in the world of bad, The Room still reigns supreme. Whereas Birdemic has plenty of bad housed in 90 minutes, it’s pretty much the same bad decisions and limitations. I look forward to Nguyen’s next film, Peephole: The Perverted. You just can’t go wrong when a movie has a subtitle, “The Perverted.” He may not be Tommy Wiseau, but this man knows how to make some tasty trash.

Nate’s (Derisive Enjoyment) Grade: B+

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