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Monday, September 26, 2022

Small Town Wisconsin

“Small Town Wisconsin” is only the second feature film of director Niels Mueller, nearly 20 years after “The Assassination of Richard Nixon” in 2004. Those titles, the former deliberately plain and the latter as spectacular as the spectacularly boneheaded faux event it’s about, would at first glance appear to have nothing in common. Drill down just a couple feet, though, and they are quite similar, both the story of a dum-dum dad struggling to get it (to keep it) together. It’s just that in “Small Town Wisconsin” this manifests itself in alcoholism and anger and in “The Assassination of Richard Nixon” this manifests itself as, well, obviously. Mueller’s first film is more impressive if mainly because it’s a much more difficult story to pull off, mining for and finding empathy where there would appear to be none at all, highlighted by Sean Penn’s fidgety, sweaty performance. But that is to take nothing away from David Sullivan’s lead performance in “Small Town Wisconsin,” loud in all the right ways, touching without becoming cloying, highlighting a movie that admittedly is better at observation than insight. 

The beginning scenes in which Wayne cracks a cold one and berates the Milwaukee Brewers while listening to them on the radio followed by oversleeping and showing up late to pick up his son Tyler (Cooper J. Friedman) from his ex-wife Deidra’s (Tanya Fischer) initially emit worries of something rote. Once Wayne and Tyler settle in for a weekend together, though, the movie finds its soul, brought home in the performance of Sullivan who does not play Wayne as a cruel or mean father, just a bad one, transforming the way his character calls his son “Champ” into a reflexive tic of heartbreaking desperation. And the moment where he inadvertently lets popcorn on the stove catch fire while he’s goofing around with Tyler becomes a manifestation of the knife’s edge on which the character and the performance rest, the best element of the whole movie, the way in which Sullivan effects the sensation of Wayne as a kind of human house of cards. When he takes his kid to a baseball game and implores him to hold his hand so they don’t get separated, you feel the anxiety. 

Wayne’s whiplash provides the moment-to-moment tension, but the overarching drama is Deidra seeking and winning custody of their son. Fischer does a good job letting us see Deidra’s alternating patience and frustration, and that Wayne’s frustration with her is entirely misplaced. She wants Wayne to tell Tyler he is moving with her to Arizona, and he plans to do it on a father and son camping trip that turns into a secret father and son foray to Milwaukee instead with his pal Chuck (Bill Heck, deftly eliding a potential caricature) in tow. That secrecy could have taken this plot twist in a different direction, but Mueller keeps the drama in a lower register. For one thing, as a Wisconsin native, he has a good handle on big city fear, evoked in their journey of simply finding a hotel, which also underlines how the support of a person like Chuck is what keeps Wayne afloat even as Wayne sleeps (literally) on that fact.

But if Tyler sees his father’s alcoholism clearly, matter-of-factly referencing it in a late scene where Sullivan’s reaction painfully suggests he thinks he’s been hiding it all along, “Small Town Wisconsin” does not. There’s a fascinating scene that could have been borrowed from the ferocious indie “Stinking Heaven.” in which Wayne sneaks into his dilapidated, vacant family home with Tyler and playacts his drunken father with his son playing himself. But Mueller never pulls on that thread when the vacationing trio in Milwaukee is forced to stay with Wayne’s sister Alicia (Kristen Johnston), opting for cozy domesticity that innately puts blinders on the lingering trauma, meaning that even if “Small Town Wisconsin” is smart enough to know one montage cannot remedy a drinking problem, this missing piece makes it feel incomplete. 

Friday, September 23, 2022

Fall Movie Preview By Necessity

The saying is life comes at you fast, but sometimes life comes at you slow. Or, maybe it’s like, life comes at you slow but you realize life has come at you slow all of a sudden, so it feels fast. Or something. I don’t know. I don’t know anything anymore. To wit, all the people at the recent Toronto International Film Festival were passing judgement on something called “The Fablemans” and I was all like, “What the hell is ‘The Fablemans?’” Turns out, it’s the new Steven Spielberg movie. Now I would like to claim I haven’t the foggiest how I, we, Cinema Romantico, at the vanguard of the movie blogging industry, missed the news of a new Spielberg joint, but then I know exactly how this happened. 

If it’s true my radar is no longer attuned to movie release news the way once it was because I’ve lost interest in much of the product coming off the Hollywood mainstream assembly line, it’s also true that in the social media age, where movie trailers are essentially beamed directly into my eyes, that I am both flooded with more and more information and yet retaining less and less. The last thing you need is me waxing nostalgic about the Entertainment Weekly Fall Movie Preview for the eleventy billionth time but, hey, there are actual studies that you retain less information scrolling your phone than reading print. And once I could memorize key dates in those EW movie previews like the Nebraska Football schedule. (“The House of Yes” opens October 10th and Nebraska plays Kansas October 25th.) So, I thought a fall movie preview was in order, for me, quite honestly, to rummage through the upcoming releases and figure out what they were, and for you too, the similarly confused or unknowing ones who were also ignorant of Guillermo del Toro’s stop-motion “Pinocchio” (I don’t know), or the live action/animated “Lyle, Lyle Crocodile” (I really don’t know).  

A movie preview for those without a clue!


Before we get to the preview proper, let’s get all the jokes about remakes and sequels out of the way first.

Halloween Ends. Sure it does! Puss in Boots: The Last Wish. It better be! Disenchanted. You’re telling me! Hellraiser. Hell is film franchise eternity. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Speaking of which. House Party. Every time I leave the house, every time you two. Hocus Pocus 2. Double, double, toil, and trouble. Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery. “The Fugitive” >>> “U.S. Marshals”

Now on with the preview.


Blonde. Already opened. Like “Joker,” the discourse around Andrew Dominik’s Marilyn Monroe (Ana de Armas) epic is already so fraught and wearying that I will probably see this at some point much later on and work out my thoughts in a review that I’ll never publish.

Don’t Worry Darling. 9/23. This might be a psychological thriller about a utopian community experiment gone wrong, but I had to look that up on IMDb because all I knew about it was gossip about in-fighting among its stars. Whatever. “The Misfits” was a troubled production, too, and hey, that only turned into one of those rare flawed masterpieces. 

The Greatest Beer Run Ever. 9/30. Seemingly less “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle” than Peter Farrelly’s continuing descent from slapstick to Mrs. Butterworth schmaltz, I can’t shake the feeling this movie should have been something else entirely and made in 1976 with Burt Reynolds and Adrienne Barbeau. 

Amsterdam. 10/7. David O. Russell filtering himself through a Wes Anderson soundboard, it would appear, though I’m less interested in discussing the movie itself right now than the trailer and wondering who wins it. Because even though it’s always nice to see Christian Bale activating his awards show raconteur for a movie, and though I’m intrigued by Mike Myers playing General Ed Fenech in the full-on key of comedy, this blog doesn’t hide its biases and nothing is funnier than a menacing Michael Shannon giggle.

All Quiet on the Western Front. 10/7. Billed as A Netflix Original this is, of course, based on the book that produced the 3rd Oscar Best Picture winner back in 1930. If that hardly suggests something Original, I find hope here, that perhaps Hulu can remake “The Broadway Melody” (1929 Best Picture) and Disney Plus can remake “Wings” (1928 Best Picture) and then the loop of remakes will close.

Triangle of Sadness. 10/4. An at-sea black comedy with some eat the rich undertones, I know how this one ends, given it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and I won’t give it away here except to say that I had I completed my terrible “Raiders of the Lost Ark” spoof on VHS camcorder 25 years ago in which the plate at The Last Supper tagged in for the Ark of Covenant and instead of melting everyone’s faces at the end would have caused them all to…well, maybe it’s good that movie was never finished.

Tár. 10/7. To a certain brand of moviegoer, the return of director Todd Field is like…is like……is like………

The Return of Tanya Tucker – Featuring Brandi Carlile. 10/21. ………the return of Tanya Tucker for a certain brand of music listener. (Doesn’t the inclusion of Brandi Carlile in the title sort of flout the whole spiritual point?)

The Banshees of Inisherin. 10/21. Listen—stop talking. I don’t need to hear the rest. The first half of the sentence was genius! ‘Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell drink pints and…’ And? What ‘and’? No ‘and’ necessary! Are you kidding me? I’m sold. Sold!

Descendent. 10/21. Margaret Brown’s “The Great Invisible” was one of the great documentaries of the last decade and I am stoked for her first feature documentary since. 

Ticket to Paradise. 10/21. I have yammered to the frustration of so many for years about wanting a full-fledged Julia Roberts/George Clooney romantic comedy and, finally, bless us every one, it is here. If our Fall Movie Preview By Necessity was a non-existent issue of our non-existent magazine, Cinema Romantico Weekly, this, of course, would get the cover, with a photo of Julia & George and a cover line that goes “Ticket to Paradise: We’ve waited so long.” (When I go with My, Beautiful Perspicacious Wife I might try out a variation of that bad joke on the poor cashier. “Two tickets to ‘Ticket to Paradise.’ [Beat.] We’ve waited so long.”)  

Armageddon Time. 10/28. This reminds me not of James Gray’s upcoming film – MUST SEE – but that in one of those Twitter prompts the otherwise esteemed Charlie Piece, who’s Esquire blog I happily pay for but whose movie opinions tend toward the highly suspect, said one of the five films he’d seen more than ten times was “Armageddon.” “Armageddon!!!!!!!!” Talk about self-own slash ruling all your movie opinions ever out of order. 

Causeway. 11/4. I don’t know, Jennifer Lawrence’s coming home drama “Causeway” might be good. But maybe just stay home and rent “Return.” 

Weird: the Al Yankovic Story. 11/4. There’s a legion of “Walk Hard: the Dewey Cox Story” acolytes who tell you that Judd Apatow spoof destroyed the music biopic forever. But that take is tired. Wired: “Weird: the Al Yankovic Story” rejuvenating the music biopic. (“I Wanna Dance With Somebody” also comes out this Christmas. Dammit.) 

Falling for Christmas. 11/10. Lindsay Lohan stars as “A young, newly engaged heiress has a skiing accident in the days before Christmas. After she is diagnosed with amnesia, she finds herself in the care of the handsome cabin owner and his daughter.” This sounds oddly similar to the plot of Hallmark’s “A Christmas to Remember” (2016) starring Oscar-winner Mira Sorvino who has not received any really good roles since getting an invitation to the 2018 Academy Awards with legend Ashley Judd in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal as if that was all just public relations. 

The Fablemans. 11/11. Entertainment Tonight (ET) is already projecting it as Best Picture winner. 

“White Noise.” 11/25. I would not have predicted Noah Baumbach as the director to tackle Don DeLillo’s extolled 1985 novel because it’s one of the books frequently deemed unfilmable and Baumbach, as much as I love him, is not the most visually inventive director out there. But the book’s tone...that feels like Baumbach to a tee. I’m excited to see it! Cougars!

“Avatar: The Way of Water.” 12/16. I know it’s the most successful movie of all time but at this point, thirteen years after the first one, I can’t help but think that James Cameron is essentially just filming his ship in a bottle hobby for the big screen. And though I probably won’t see it, I find that kind of endearing. 

Babylon. 12/25. If “The Artist” had turned its camera back around and suddenly realized you were on the set of “Blow.” Perfect for a festive holiday season. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

On Her Majesty's Greatest Impersonator

Britain’s longest serving Monarch Queen Elizabeth II (Elizabeth Alexandra Mary) died last Thursday at the age of 96 and was laid to rest yesterday in Windsor Castle. The state funeral at Westminster Abbey was as ornate as a title like Elizabeth II, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith would lead you to expect, right down to Lord Chamberlain’s wand. Indeed, while I’m sure there was a real person in there, somewhere, behind Heading up the Commonwealth and Defending the Faith, Her Majesty The Queen was a symbol, first and foremost. “The institution of hereditary kingship is irrational and impractical,” Rebecca Mead made clear in The New Yorker, “sustained in the present era only through a willful combination of public pageantry and concealed mystery.” It’s why even if Claire Foy and Olivia Colman both won Emmys for playing the Queen and even if Helen Mirren won an Oscar for playing “The Queen” too, the most indelible portrayal of Her Majesty remains, of course, as everyone knows, Jeannette Charles in “The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!” 

Her role, really, is to be the butt of the joke, over and over, laying siege to her indispensable courtliness, but I don’t mean this as an insult to the Britons. Why the scene in which she winds up, uh, under Lt. Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) on the banquet table just goes to show why Elizabeth wanted to not televise her 1953 coronation in the first place...who knew what could go wrong?! More than that, though, by not really having a role beyond The Queen Becomes Victim Of Hijinks, she remains a mystery while being shuffled through an array of ridiculous Yank-styled pageantry, all of which Charles, who made a career out of her resemblance to Elizabeth II, plays with a proper Buster Keaton-ish stone face. I mean, the scene in the Abbey in Season 1 of “The Crown” when Foy and Matt Smith as Philip spar over Phil’s having to kneel is all well and good when it comes to demonstrating the weight of the Royal image, but nothing cuts to the heart of the all-important and endless Royal ceremoniousness tedium than Charles in “The Naked Gun” being handed a hot dog at Angel Stadium in the ballpark frank version of a bucket brigade, matter-of-factly regarding it as the Queen might have some commemorative Fountain of Youth dish towels bestowed upon her by the Mayor of St. Augustine, Florida, and just sending the damn thing on down the line. 

Monday, September 19, 2022

Bob's Burgers the Movie

Of all the arts and entertainment comfort food I consumed during the lockdown portions of the COVID-19 Pandemic, few were as comforting as Loren Bouchard’s long-running animated Fox sitcom “Bob’s Burgers” about a family of five, The Belchers, running a hamburger restaurant in a shabby seaside town. It was funny in that deadpan way I prefer, but what I liked best was how Bouchard neatly balanced the flights of imaginative fancy with 2D animated mundanity. The three kids – Tina (Dan Mintz), Gene (Eugene Mirman), and Louise (Kristen Schaal) – hashed out their dreams and fears and weird obsessions while wiping down menus and refilling ketchup bottles. Linda (John Roberts) was the enthusiastic yin to Bob’s (H. Jon Benjamin) anxious yang, though even Bob tended to voice his own beef creations, a man in love with the place causing all his stress, true comic duality. And even if Bouchard proves he can sustain enough quality jokes and plot machinations for an-hour-and-forty minutes rather than twenty-two in bringing his TV show to the big screen, he does not significantly change the recipe. Such familiarity might prompt the question “Why make it then?” But that’s a Bob kind of concern and in spirit this is a Linda movie, like its makeshift, unlicensed hamburger cart crafted by loyal customer Teddy (Larry Murphy) to peddle burgers on the pier, spreading the cheer to a wider audience, honoring the Burger of the Day of Season 2, Episode 9: “Poutine on the Ritz.”

Its intentions are stated right away in an opening song number called “Sunny Side Up Summer.” If it holds true to the show’s fondness for musical theatre, dancing from the “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” choreography school rather than Gene Kelly, it’s also a nifty introduction to the characters for audience newbies just as it establishes the movie’s drama. That includes Louise seeking to certify her bravery in spite of the omnipresent rabbit ears atop her head and Bob and Linda needing to pay the bank all they owe in a single week after being denied a loan extension, the moment when their aspirant Sunny Side Up Summer becomes a burnt omelette. The latter becomes further complicated when a sinkhole suddenly opens up directly outside the restaurant, leaving customers with no way inside except through the ostensible scenic alley. That’s what Linda call it, of course, trying to keep a little optimism, even as Bob stands at the window looking for customers that will never come, his wide animated eyes like the Irish Setter from the old Far Side cartoon where depressed looks like pensive which looks like suicidal. There are certain faces that never fail to leave me in stitches: Larry David looking quizzical, Michael Shannon looking vexed, Bob Belcher looking depressed looking pensive looking suicidal. But then, the sinkhole is the conduit to murder mystery in which a body found at the bottom is fingered at the victim of the Belchers’ landlord Mr. Fischoeder (Kevin Kline, his quizzical snobbishness once again brilliantly embodying the thoughtlessness of the rich). There might be a dead body but despite the frequent shadows Bouchard adds to his animation, the ensuing movie in which the mystery and loan extension converge suggests something more like action-adventure spectacle.

“Bob’s Burgers” episodes often homage movies, from “A River Runs Through Bob” to “Paraders of the Lost Float,” and watching its own movie I kept thinking of Season 3’s “The Deepening” in which a mechanical shark terrorizes the town. A hole briefly opens up in the street outside Bob’s restaurant there too, demonstrating the movie’s penchant for recycling bits from past episodes, giving the entire production the whiff of Robert Rodriguez’s “Desperado” to his “El Mariachi,” the former a much more glossy facsimile of the latter. “Bob’s Burgers the Movie” is not that slick, and has great set pieces to recommend it, from a (clam) car chase to a treehouse escape that balance the edge of surprisingly suspenseful and very funny. But there was a weirdness to “The Deepening,” embodied best in Tina’s affection for the shark, that “Bob’s Burgers the Movie” unfortunately sidelines for a straighter edge. It’s a family-friendly affair, which isn’t all bad since Bouchard excels at evincing family-friendly, brought home in the amazing sequence where The Belchers are on the verge of being buried alive, at once amusing and honestly affecting, served with the most endearing fart joke you’ll hear ever hear.

Friday, September 16, 2022


I have long since chucked my myriad back issues of Creative Screenwriting Magazine but I swear there was one from the summer of 1997 in which Ed Solomon said that in an early draft of “Men in Black” he conceived an alien as being the post office. The alien wasn’t in the post office, mind you, no, the alien simply was the post office. The filmmakers, Solomon said, thought this was too unconventional and confusing for an audience, that people needed to see aliens as they had come to understand them, both in movies and the broader culture, and so the alien as the post office idea was jettisoned. The revolutionary, rule-breaking French-Swiss filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard never would have allowed such hand-holding; his movies, they were the post office.

Jean-Luc Godard died on Monday at the age of 91. Honoring his commitment to temporal displacement and his most famous quote, the one about every movie needing beginnings, middles, and ends but not necessarily in that order, The Onion published a headline that said “Jean-Luc Godard Dies At End Of Life In Uncharacteristically Linear Narrative Choice.” It was funny, of course, though as Godard’s legal council declared, the filmmaker died by assisted suicide in Rolle, Switzerland. If Godard’s death was linear, he still left the earth by putting a thumb in the eye of convention and polite culture. He was described as not being sick, “simply exhausted,” a brute honesty refreshingly free of the usual blinders we wear to prevent ourselves from looking death straight in the eye. “It is clear, astringent, unsentimental, abrupt,” Roger Ebert wrote of Godard’s “Vivre sa vie” (1962). “Then it is over.” It was Godard’s life to live...and to end. 

The business of writing about Godard should be left to film historians and scholars, frankly, not idiot bloggers like me, but I still wanted to sit down and contextualize Godard in my own mind. When I was a kid first watching movies, I remember – I honestly remember – thinking about when the people onscreen went to the bathroom. I thought this because movies, even as they changed scenes and locations, sought an illusory feeling of continuation. But Godard broke that illusion by deploying the verboten jump cut with a purpose and taking his camera where no camera had gone before. Brigitte Bardot didn’t go to the bathroom in “Contempt” (1963), per se, but she was still sitting on the toilet. To paraphrase Morty Seinfeld: they’ve got a movie camera in the john here!

If Godard’s run of influential films in the 60s raided the past they also pointed toward the future by concocting a radical new cinematic language that would have come across extra-terrestrial and alienating, deliberately alienating, to so many modern audiences. But if we are now in that future he pointed toward, where essentially every motion picture – every moving image – owes him a debt, his films have not calcified. No, they remain alive and invigorating, and to these modern audiences raised on narrative TV masquerading as movies his work is likely just as extra-terrestrial and alienating, deliberately alienating, as it was then. It’s like if Marty McFly had gotten up in front of the Enchantment Under the Sea sock-hoppers and eschewed “Johnny B. Goode” for “Bitches Brew”; I reckon some of us are still not ready for this. 

He pushed things so fast so far that by the end of 1967’s “Weekend,” that conclusion seeming to foreshadow humanity’s fate to revert back to the beginning of “2001” one year before “2001” was even released, he literally declared his own movie as the end of cinema. Oh, it effused Godard’s ego to the extreme, but it also demonstrated what he perceived as the inevitable limitations of the movie language he invented, then forsaking it for something else entirely, epitomized in the only one of his post-67 films I can say I’ve seen: “Goodbye to Language” (2014).

David Thomson didn’t feel so differently than Godard, writing that “Breathless” (1960) wasn’t so much a sign of what was to come as “a warning. It said...Watch out, this game, this entertainment is over. Movie is all used up, and if we repeat it it will turn camp—and I’ll prove it to you.” I think plenty of work in the years since have shown that movie is not all used up, yet Godard’s warning remains eternal. If “Weekend” was the end of cinema, it was only because so many films – then, now – failed to understand its opening title card better. 

Novels are on the page; plays are on the stage; music comes out of your speakers; Teevee’s on the TV; film, Godard understood and said as “Weekend” began, is adrift in the cosmos.

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Petite Maman

It’s always been a profound regret that I didn’t get to say goodbye to my grandfather, or perhaps that I didn’t properly get to say goodbye to my grandfather, or perhaps that I just don’t remember saying goodbye to my grandfather. He died near the end of 1989, when Cher’s “If I Could Turn Back Time” was all over the radio, and though that song was obviously about something else, every time I heard it, I would refashion it in my mind as a song about getting to turn back time to say goodbye to my grandfather. And in its way Celine Sciama’s “Petite Maman,” while just as much a movie about a daughter bonding with her mother (a child bonding with an adult), makes that same fanciful wish for one of its characters come true. On paper, this French film is as fantastical as “Back to the Future.” But a movie isn’t what it’s about, to borrow a phrase, but how it’s about it, and aside from the emotional crescendo when Sciama suddenly but purposely goes big on aesthetic, “Petite Maman” is drained of every last sensational ounce for a neorealist vibe instead. The emotions in play are big, but their rendering is muted, so much so that the full weight of what transpires in this seemingly slight 72 minutes might not take hold until after it’s over, which feels true to childhood, how so many events only make sense to us later.

“Petite Maman” is told through the eyes of a child. This is made clear in the opening handheld image of an older woman in a retirement home before the camera drifts back to reveal eight-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) is standing beside her, saying goodbye the way you would ritually bid goodbye to someone at the end of a day. Indeed, the camera proceeds to follow Nelly as she then walks down a hallway, going from room to room, bidding goodbye to other retirees, before winding up in another room with her mother Marion (Nina Meurisse).There Nelly has no one to say goodbye to and she verbally expresses regret at not getting to say goodbye to the room’s resident – or, former resident, we glean – properly. Sciama is judicious here, not straightforwardly disclosing the missing person was Nelly’s now deceased grandmother, preferring to let us glean it from the unspoken details. Later, in driving to her grandmother’s house in the countryside to begin the process of clearing it out, Nelly shares a sweet scene with her mother by indulging in a backseat apero hour, though a later scene at home before bed suggests a small rift between the two. The next morning when Nelly wakes up, she discovers her mother has left with just her father (Stéphane Varupenne) there instead, not coincidentally keying into that same establishing feeling of all-of-the-sudden departures. And then Nelly goes into the backyard and, well, this is perhaps where we will advise the more spoiler-phobic among us to please exit the review. 

That is not to suggest “Petite Maman” has anything like a “Sixth Sense”-twist. No, there is a twist, but the A Ha is more gradually evinced. The woods, both in their very idea as woods and the way Sciama shoots them with great color and little sunlight, puts one in the mind of a fairytale. And soon, Nelly has met a young girl, Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), cough cough, who looks an awful lot like her. When Marion invites Nelly over to her house, Nelly notices the house looks eerily similar to her grandmother’s, and the way she moves through the halls and rooms, picking out exactly what is similar, gives the scene an unspoken energy that we the audience are picking up on too, and at virtually the same rate. If this was another movie, the mood might have been more in the vein of horror, or mystery, or suspense, deliberately withholding to eventually shock us. But Sciama’s shunning of aesthetic embellishment means the tone skews more toward quiet, matter of fact discovery, a whole movie made in the space of that story Jesse tells in “Before Sunrise” about seeing his dead grandmother in the mist of a garden hose, becoming a kind of innate expression of how children are always more in tune with what’s going on in the world around them than adults might think, and enhanced by how the child actors are never asked to do too much, the natural straight forwardness of these performances movingly bringing home the kind of implicit clarity only a child can provide. 

Monday, September 12, 2022


“Cinema,” Grandmaster Marty Scorsese once said, “is a matter of what it’s in the frame and what’s out.” Most movies just live out this truth, but Jordan Peele’s “Nope” explores it. The opening images, a low-angled shot of a blood-covered chimpanzee in a birthday hat on an empty soundstage followed by a death when something falls mysteriously from the sky are as much demonstrations of the camera’s limited viewpoint as they are narrative puzzle pieces. And in mish-mashing sci-fi and western, cowboys and aliens, when a mysterious disc appears in the sky above a California horse farm outside Hollywood, Peele essentially transforms “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” into “Burden of Dreams,” its characters trying to capture footage of this disc with the same intensity Werner Herzog tried to drag a steamship over a hill. It’s an evocation of the moviemaking process, in other words, even as it also becomes an equally evocative commentary on the movie industry, who the eye of Hollywood tends to see and who it doesn’t.

The horse farm belongs to the Haywoods, O.J. (Daniel Kaluuya) and Em (Keke Palmer), passed down from their father (Keith David) who made a living providing horses for Hollywood productions. Business isn’t what it once was, glimpsed in a scene where O.J. stands with one of the family equines before a green screen on some film set while Em gives the artists and crew the standard Haywood Hollywood Horse Farm lecture about how their great-great-great grandfather was the cowboy astride a horse in the very first moving image, Eadweard Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion from 1878. Even if Peele is exaggerating parts of the real history for his own purposes, this becomes nothing less than a kind of Hollywood critical race theory lesson. Indeed, the people listening to it barely listen at all. They decide to digitize the horse instead.

The Haywoods mostly make money by selling parts of their stock to Ricky Park (Steven Yeun) who runs a western themed tourist trap not far from their farm. Ricky’s backstory connects to that opening image, one revealed as his own adolescent point-of-view of the bloody chimp. Yet rather than instill a lifelong sense of fear, it seems only to have produced a belief of infallibility, because where everyone else sees something uncertain or terrifying or both when they see this disc in the sky, he sees opportunity. It is something to sell, a la Art Land in “Mars Attacks!,” even as this subplot also ingeniously, insidiously equates such art with an unquenchable consumerist appetite that will, ahem, eat you alive. Ricky is juxtaposed with Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), a cinematographer on the prowl not so much for a deeper artistic truth as, simply, one perfect shot.

Antlers becomes part of O.J. and Em’s skeleton filmmaking crew along with Angel Torres (Brandon Perea), the tech salesman who helps them install a comprehensive set of cameras on their farm to try and record this mysterious disc in the sky and joins their crew of his own volition. Angel is not written with much dimension, a brief moment with his nosy co-worker (Barbie Ferreira) merely proven a comic tease rather than anything substantial, and given the performance of Wincott in tune with the lines he’s made to say, Antlers never rises above caricature, the latter partially negating the otherwise awesome rush of his fate.

Palmer and especially Kaluuya, on the other hand, are magnificent. Though consciously written and played as emotional opposites, the two actors also deftly demonstrate the bond between all that and where emotionally they line up in spite of it. Palmer’s energy is infectious and plays perfectly off Kaluuya’s quiet surliness (see: above image). His performance is emotional, brilliantly internalizing the pressure of carrying his father’s legacy, but is also technical in a kind of emotional way. If Peele is effusing the camera’s limits then Kaluuya effuses its immense, limitless power, how physical stillness responds so powerfully to its gaze and emphasizes his searching eyes in each scene that much more. The single best scene in the movie is when O.J. has picked out the disc’s hiding spot in the sky, the camera tilted up at him positioned in a doorway, Kaluuya stationary and looking to the sky with this magnetically beatific smile, illustrating the bliss of when you really see something for the first time, which Peele underlines with the reverse shot cut over his shoulder pointed toward the clouds. 

It's true that “Nope” can sometimes border on allegorical inside baseball. Like his previous films, however, Peele remains conscious of genre, and even as the nighttime images of O.J. first fleeing the extra-terrestrial pursuit underscore the camera’s sometimes restrictive view in frantic close-ups, they also ably evince standalone suspense, just as the narrative seeds Peele ingeniously plants, like an apparent prop on Ricky Park’s old west set, delightfully sprout as the movie culminates. You don’t even need to know Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion to connect images of O.J. astride a thoroughbred as black movie cowboys across the centuries to thrill to the concluding chase across the desert. But it’s also true that by informing you of it, the meaning of the chase fully blooms, Peele is asking us to be conscious of our history, of Hollywood’s history, and once you are, “Nope,” like one of those 3D paintings, comes all the way into focus.