The Friendly Film Fan Discusses Jordan Peele’s Return to the Big Screen.
In many ways, Jordan Peele is a bellwether for both the best and worst kind of movie fans. On the one hand, the now-iconic director of Get Out – the first horror film to be nominated for Best Picture since 1999 – and Us, is one of the few, if not only, filmmakers able to attract large crowds to the cineplex based solely on his name and reputation as both critic and craftsman. Get Out, in particular, was lauded for its searing depiction of white liberals’ use of Black bodies to achieve their own selfish ends without regard to the damage it causes. Us, perhaps less successfully, was more about class divide and the ways in which people take up and drop causes based solely on the moment they’re in. (It’s also more focused on the horror elements than its own subtext.) Both of these films were highly praised for their cinematography, haunting storytelling, standout comedic moments, and stellar performances from majority-Black casts. People loved going out to the theater and discussing the films after the credits ended. The former of them was itself a cultural reset for the whole of the horror genre, and is oft credited with being the picturesque portrait of horror mega-producers Blumhouse’ style and mission (Jason Blum himself even said it was the “perfect Blumhouse movie”). On the other hand, many of the moviegoers Peele attracts to the big screen now come laden with an expectation that whatever he puts out must have something inherently meaningful to say, and that to not lace his scripts with social commentary or some sort of political ideology or thesis simmering underneath is akin to failing or “slipping” in his directorial efforts. It is at the crossroads between these two forces that Peele’s new film, Nope, finds both its greatest success and its most challenging disconnects.
Nope is a straight-up thriller through and through. There are no hidden messages here for viewers to parse, no underbelly for them to wade through between Oscar-season cocktail parties or campaign events. Indeed, it seems to be the first of Peele’s films to not only avoid creating anything to drum up awards season chatter in its narrative, but to actively dismantle the hope of generating it. That’s not to say that it doesn’t deserve to generate awards season chatter, only that unlike Get Out or Us, there’s nothing here that viewers can latch onto to create an “Oscar narrative,” even if that narrative is stretched to its absolute limit in terms of plausibility. This is just rock-solid thriller filmmaking bolstered by some of the best craftwork moviegoers can see on the big screen; and make no mistake, people should see this on a very big screen.
The decision to shoot with IMAX cameras by Peele and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema proves to be an ingenious one, even as much of what viewers ultimately wish to see within their lenses is kept out of frame or shrouded in shadow. The scope of the movie is one of its greatest assets; wide open spaces where anything can go wrong are often the driving force of the tension within the film. If characters need to get to one place to feel safe, and by proxy make the viewers feel safe, the best way to create tension is to separate those spaces as far apart as possible, something that Nope not only understands but continually repeats as it rachets up the intensity from moment to moment; even in its quietest scenes, the looming spectacle of whatever threat the characters face is held together by the frames of Hoytema’s lens, as well as stellar sound design which is given far more power here than even in Peele’s previous feature work. (Every shot also just looks absolutely beautiful. The score, too, though less prominent here than in films where it usually is one of the more notable elements, is utilized almost perfectly, though I would have liked to hear more of it in certain moments.)
But frames can only work as well as what’s contained within them, and Jordan Peele’s directorial efforts are most evident in the performances of yet another stellar ensemble cast, including a world-class Keke Palmer and returning (now Oscar-winner) muse Daniel Kaluuya, whom Peele directed to his first Best Actor nomination in Get Out. Kaluuya is in the film more than viewers might expect given how much of the initial marketing was focused on the Keke Palmer character, but when one has a performer as thoroughly engrossing to watch as him, why limit oneself to minimal use? Kaluuya once again, and often, draws the camera to his face and holds it there, the only true measure of his immeasurable talent being the image of his eye movements in silent moments, saying everything without a word being uttered. Other notable performances include a wonderfully wry Michael Wincott, a vulnerable-yet-commanding Steven Yeun, and supporting cast standout Brandon Perea. The star of the show, however, is the formerly noted Keke Palmer, who here stands out not only as the most charismatic and funniest of the main characters, but has the most to do in terms of what the narrative requires of her character. Palmer is already well-known for her work outside of Nope, but her performance here should rocket her into the stratosphere of the most sought-after talent Hollywood has to offer.
Where Nope begins to dip into what could be metaphor or commentary, but ultimately ends up more confusing in its inclusion than clarifying, is in its sub-narrative regarding a sitcom episode that features a monkey. The sequence is heavily tied to the Steven Yeun character, but while the sequence is arresting on its own, and frankly the most terrifying part of the film as its opening image cements that this will not be a light-hearted or comic subplot, its place in the larger narrative never seems to gel quite the way it seems to hope it will. While Yeun’s undersold and fairly brief performance is yet another in a string of successes for the actor, the inclusion of his character’s backstory seems to be its own story within the story, meant to shed light on what’s happening in the main plot but ultimately only used to reinforce a point the audience doesn’t really need to be reinforced.
On the whole, Nope may not be the cultural force Get Out was or even as tinged in commentary as Us, but it remains far better than it ever needed to be thanks to the efforts of world-class craftsmanship and dynamic performances. Jordan Peele’s thriller is one of the few in 2022 that genuinely embodies exactly what its mission is, and accomplishes that mission (for the most part) with tact and genuine excitement. It looks great, it sounds great, it’s chock-full of great performances, and it’s a perfect big-screen theater experience to round out the main portion of the summer movie season. Even as various directors have attempted to capture the same stylistic flourishes and filmmaking tricks of his trade, the truth remains for better or worse: no one makes movies like Jordan Peele.
I’m giving “Nope” an 8.2/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
This review briefly touches on some of the plot setup for this film. You have been warned.
The MCU has always been a little bit self-serious. Even in the films where comedy was the primary mode of storytelling (i.e. the Guardians and Spider-Man films), one has a distinct sense that though the material is self-aware, it’s not especially zany or eager to become playful with its subject matter, particularly on the crafts side. There are no star wipes, no cuts-to-black in the middle of proceedings, and zero freeze-frame lining the walls of the most popular and easily the most successful franchise – both critically and commercially – ever committed to digital rendering. There aren’t even any transitions where one frame bleeds into another as if characters are invading the narrative to take over its main thrust. Most of it, to be frank, is fairly straightforward comic-book storytelling, as straightforward as those things can be when dealing with a purple genocidal alien and a pair of best friends who take the forms of a tree and a raccoon. Generally speaking - and apart from the Guardians films – there’s not normally a ton of risk involved in directing a Marvel Studios film, at least not in terms of an audience being jarred by one’s sense of style; that can get boring after a fashion. In all truth, the MCU needed to get a little silly to stay fresh. It needed to evolve from a mere action/comedy franchise into something more akin to a fun exploration of what kinds of MCU stories can be told. And that, by far, is the biggest strength director Sam Raimi offers in directing the newest entry to the Disney juggernaut, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.
As the titular sorcerer travels the multiverse with the help of newly-introduced multiverse-hopper America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) in order to stop a fearsome evil from pursuing them and ultimately taking America’s power for its own, one can sense the Sam Raimi style bleeding into the frames from the edge until they consume the story entirely. There are multiple action sequences with genuinely silly effects – one in particular involving a classical music composition – and any number of transitions those unfamiliar with Raimi will no doubt notice as being distinct amongst the wider MCU. Raimi’s been no stranger to camp, ever since his original Evil Dead release in 1981, and it peppers Multiverse of Madness in some fairly significant ways. Another storytelling element to which Raimi is no stranger is horror; Multiverse of Madness is not a full-on horror film, but it does get significantly closer to that genre than any MCU movie has to date, though just how close Raimi was allowed to get is in question since Scott Derickson, the film’s original helmer, presumably left the project because Marvel didn’t want him to get too close to making an actual horror film. That said, certain images and moments are crafted with a horror element in mind, as is evident in certain sequences and with particular characters, especially the villains this time around.
Where the film runs into significant problems is its script, one that can’t seem to decide whose story it’s telling or how it wants to go about telling it. Whereas the initial Doctor Strange film had the benefit of being an origin story, thus only needing to set up one character, Multiverse of Madness carries the unwieldy task of not only introducing us to America Chavez, but to the multiverse at large, and all that it contains, both in its more brief appearances and its more significant layovers. That means a lot of characters and a lot of worlds to cover in a fairly short span of time, and it’s not always up to the task. Unfortunately, though the film certainly has at least a small arc for its titular hero, and he is very much in the center of the frame, the introduction of the wider MCU means that stories in which he’s involved can’t only focus on him now – even if he is, as noted, the title character. Because of all the setup involved, as well as needing to handle at least two other mainline characters’ stories, Strange feels a little bit pushed to the background in terms of development here. We know about him by film’s end almost as much as we knew at the beginning, and apart from some rudimentary introductory material, we don’t really know that much about what kind of person America Chavez is either. That said, MCU movies have bounced back from character development issues and over-bloat before – hell, even Iron Man 2 – the worst MCU movie – still coasts on the charms of Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johannson.
What Multiverse of Madness may not bounce back from is in how it handles the Wanda Maximoff character, whose MCU journey has been one of the most compelling of any of her cohorts across four movies and her own Disney+ limited series (though the number of movies drops to three if one considers she only briefly appears in Avengers: Endgame). It’s not to say that the place Wanda ultimately ends up in the film makes no sense, but on the whole, it’s merely a repeat of her emotionally-driven arc from WandaVision without the necessary developments taking place to get her back to where she needs to be at the beginning of it (I’m deeply sorry if that sentence is confusing, but keeping this spoiler-free means that will occasionally happen). There is one small line during the first act that hints at what might be driving Wanda towards this point of origin, but no justification for it or demonstration of its truth beyond what we already know from that series. Elizabeth Olsen, as always, acts the hell out of whatever she’s given to do, but her function in this film is more so as a plot device than as her own distinct character, ditto America Chavez for most of the film’s runtime. Wanda begins at an endpoint here without the MCU having earned that journey for her character, and while her story in this film may make sense in a vacuum, the question of how everything connects to the wider MCU forces it to confront a near-antithesis of itself without so much as a guide to who she is or who she has been.
All in all, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness does bring some of that much-needed fun back to the film side of the MCU, where nearly everything has been soaked in dour, post-Endgame dread or multiverse acknowledgement/setup, and is able to bring some of that Sam Raimi zaniness to this world with a decent amount of success, but the script for the film can’t seem to handle the weight of what it needs to accomplish in the amount of time it has to accomplish it. Everything that doesn’t work takes up a lot of the spotlight from the things that do, and despite the myriad showcases of style, some fun cameos, and a healthy dose of zany horror, this MCU entrant may end up disappointing audiences on a number of levels. Perhaps this film needed to be longer in order to accommodate everything it needed to include and flesh out some of its more significant pacing issues, but – while I won’t say I wasn’t at least a little bit let down by some of its less favorable material – for my part, it is refreshing to see the MCU dive head-first into becoming something almost entirely different than what it’s been to this point.
I’m giving “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” a 7.6/10.
- The Friendly Film Fan
The Friendly Film Fan reviews A24's latest horror feature from returning director Ti West.
Over the weekend, a new horror film from indie powerhouse A24 released, entitled “X” (yes, that’s the whole title). This comeback of director Ti West is a 70s-set picture about a group of young people setting out to make what it is referred to in the film as “a good dirty movie” – porn and prestige filmmaking all in one place. It stars the likes of Mia Goth, Jenna Ortega, Brittany Snow, Scott Mescudi, Martin Henderson, and Owen Campbell. As the group arrives to a distant farmhouse, they are shown the boarding house where they’ll be allowed to stay. But something strange is going on with the land’s owner and his wife, and it will be up to this band of merry misfits to either determine what’s happening…or to survive it.
In as few words as I can put it, X is a good movie, to a fault. It takes some big swings, and mostly makes those into hits by being as bold and brash with its material as it could possibly be. The ride only gets wilder the longer it goes on – but don’t expect that wildness to hold all the way to the end. There’s a lot that works here, but there’s often almost as much that works against it, though to explain why may give away the game in some capacity. I’m not sure it’s even entirely possible to review it in any certain terms without spoiling it, but being that it did just release, I will do my best on that front. The truth is that the film is noticeably style over substance, although one doesn’t pick up on that right away. The allusions to old horror classics like the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre are obvious, but the film itself pretty much leaves them at that – allusions. The rest of it is filled with a lot of aggrandizing filmmaking – though one can tell director West is not aggrandizing himself; rather, he is aggrandizing the horror films of the 70s and 80s through his directorial style. That sweaty, summer-toned, sexy look is all over every scene of X, regardless of whether what we’re show is the film itself or the movie being made within it. In all this aggrandizing, however, whatever substance the movie has is pushed further downwards; it’s definitely still there, but it’s very much not at the forefront of the story here.
Is there a story here? There’s certainly a narrative: characters interact with each other and the world around them, things happen to them, they happen to things, there’s a clear beginning, middle, and end. But what is the movie trying to say exactly? That it is, in fact, possible to make a good dirty movie? Perhaps, and if that is indeed the point, consider X a success in that regard, but I won’t pretend to have loved it where I mostly just really enjoyed it, and part of that lack of infatuation with it does come down to the fact that the message of it doesn’t seem to be any deeper than “this is a slasher like the old ones you knew, and it doesn’t need to be anything else.” Many may call that simple or unpretentious, but for myself, I was still left wanting a little more.
However, that’s not to say that X doesn’t give us plenty of scenery to chew on. Its sexually-charged, hyper-stylized first half is a real treat to see, every performance toing the line between unhinged and charismatic – subtle or otherwise – and each scene laying down small but notable groundwork for how the rest of it is going to play out. Unfortunately, that incredibly singular first half with all its unexpected direction and character turnings eventually gives way to a second half that is essentially all horror with very little in the way of flourish. Once this thing morphs into a straight-up slasher (though with a noticeable wrinkle in that subgenre), all that sexy 70s-style pizzaz turns off like a light switch, as if a second movie has entered the fray; a good movie, to be sure, but one that feels a little bit at odds with what preceded it, stylistically at least. One part Texas Chainsaw meets The Nice Guys, and the next minute, a Halloween movie with an alternate Michael Myers.
And that’s really where the main problems lie. Despite all the good will it builds within the horror genre, and regardless of how many times Brittany Snow or Scott Mescudi end up stealing the whole show, that show never really gets around to defining what it really wants to be or be about. The words of the Sheriff at the end of the film (the main story takes place between a prologue and epilogue) ring in the audience’s ears: “one goddamn fucked up horror picture.” But is that really all X wants to be in the end? Perhaps, and perhaps that’s a fair shake, given how thoroughly A24 has been both largely praised and widely blamed for the rise of “elevated horror.” But just because a movie works on its own terms doesn’t mean that it couldn’t work on better ones.
Regardless of all the complaints I’ve made and issues I’ve attempted to address, I still thoroughly enjoyed myself watching X. Sure, it may be style over substance, but boy oh boy, that style sure is infectious. Maybe this is the move A24 needed to make in order to be done with “elevated” horror and simply produce something that doesn’t have to think about deeper meanings or the next way grief can be explored in some witch ceremony or ancient demon book. Maybe a straight-up slasher was the right move for a studio so associated with one kind of horror to make, and whether you love the idea of “elevated” horror or not will likely have a lot to do with how you view Ti West’s return to the silver screen. All that said, this one is still worth checking out, and it’s definitely the most fun, stylish piece of media in theaters right now that doesn’t feature a man beating up thugs in a batsuit.
I’m giving “X” a 7.9/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Us is the latest horror film from producer, writer, and director Jordan Peele, the same half of the comic phenomenon “Key and Peele” that wrote and directed 2017’s Get Out, which was not only one of the most original and subversive horror films in recent memory, but also went on to boast a variety of Academy Award nominations, taking home the win for Best Original Screenplay. In his sophomore follow-up, Peele opts to tell a story about you and me (us), and how we are our own worst enemy. The film begins with a family setting off to take a vacation at Santa Cruz beach, at first nice and relaxed, only to be visited by a family standing in their driveway in the middle of the night. The catch? This family looks exactly like them. If they hope to survive, they must outsmart their counterparts who move and think as they do, or put an end to the chase, once and for all. The film stars Lupita N’yongo, Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker, Shahadi Wright Joseph, and Evan Alex.
Jordan Peele has become something of an overnight revelation in blockbuster horror filmmaking. Before Get Out, most people (including myself) knew him only as one half of the Key & Peele duo that initially charged his success, but in February of 2017, all of that became a thing of the past. Get Out was not only one of the biggest box office successes of that year relative to budget, it also racked up a strong number of Oscar nominations, becoming the first horror flick since The Sixth Sense to be nominated for Best Picture of the Year. In fact, so great was the success of Get Out that a mere two years later, people are starting to ask others if they’ll go to see the new Jordan Peele movie. Most accomplished directors take two or three films to get to that point, sometimes more, but for Peele, one was enough. Given all that success, Us had a lot to live up to given both the prestige of that first film’s success and that of its writer/director. And relative to expectations, it more than delivered.
Us is a great horror flick, and although not as thematically rich as Get Out was (i.e. I wouldn’t be looking for a lot of Oscar nominations for this, although there are exceptions), Peele once again brings that air of quiet tension roaring back onto the silver screen in full force. One can truly tell that this is a director in command of his cast, crew, and audience to such a confident degree he might as well have written the book on bringing horror back into mainstream cinema. There’s something incredibly assured about how he chooses to frame certain segments, allowing the camera to simply move throughout a given space and trusting that what’s meant to be scary will be. Even during the times when the audience is not meant to be scared, the camera lingers on characters, moments, and Peele milks every frame for every drop its worth.
While I may not get a chance to discuss the film plot-wise (seriously, it is incredible just how well they kept the secrets of it in the marketing campaign), what I can tell you about it is that the way this mystery plays out is wildly entertaining, with each relative set piece offering more creative and clever solutions for either the survival or demise of each individual character. Following that thread, the characters in this film are some of most interesting to follow in horror. The family being hunted by their doppelgangers has a natural, organic chemistry between them that makes them entirely relatable, and it is due to this same chemistry that those doppelgangers remain compelling on a narrative level. It really is something to see two completely opposite sides of the same person at the same time, especially considering the actors in it are basically reacting only to what they think the evil versions of these characters might be like. A lot of the film, as well, has a sharp humor to it that only a writer as well-versed in comedy as Peele would be able to pull off. Not every joke in the film lands on its feet, but most do, and in a more mainstream horror movie like this one, landing most of those jokes could be considered somewhat of a minor miracle.
The true purpose of this film though, it would seem, is to showcase the best performance-based justification for why Lupita N’yongo is as big a star as she is since her Oscar-winning supporting role in 2013’s 12 Years a Slave. She leads this film, practically carrying everyone who’s not Winston Duke on her shoulders, straight to the top of the horror-as entertainment category, and seeing the stark contrast in her performances as both herself and direct counterpart is truly a wonder to behold. The Academy tends to have a bias against most horror flicks (with a quick glance at last year’s Toni Collette snub for reference), but given that Peele has already broken through to them with his previous film, I wouldn’t be surprised to find N’yongo with her second nomination (although a win seems unlikely this early). All of the other performances are also great, with Winston Duke proving he’s no one-off Black Panther scene-stealer. In the shadow of Lupita N’yongo, it can be easy to forget just how much skill he also brings to his role, both in physicality and in his voice. Elisabeth Moss doesn’t have as big a role as either of them, but suffice it to say, she more than makes up for her lack of screen time. The true revelations though are Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex as the leading children of the main family. Both of them are exceptionally good here, and their careers are sure to take a drastic upturn once enough people have seen the performances they’re both capable of.
If there is a true flaw in this massively entertaining spectacle of horror, it would probably be the thematic weight of it all. See, Get Out was absolutely a mainstream Blumhouse horror movie that had an eerie tone and fun-to-unravel mystery at its center to begin with, but it was also a biting satire on mainstream progressivism and a social commentary on how all-too-often a lot of “pro-black”, liberal America likes to say they’re in favor of progressive things like the Obama administration or greater diversity in mostly white spaces, but they don’t actually do much to bring those things to fruition, preferring to use black people and (more specifically) the black experience as a means to their own ends. Essentially, it was Jordan Peele giving the middle finger to Hollywood and saying “all you do is use us to feel good about yourselves and the ‘I have black friends/fans/producers/racism-is-bad-let’s-all-be-friends’ card isn’t gonna cut it anymore” (*cough* Green Book *cough*). That’s a pretty bold move to make with your directorial debut, and the fact that not only did Peele pull it off, but the Academy rewarded him for doing so, is astounding. That’s what makes it a tad disappointing that while Us can be viewed from a variety of different perspectives (duality of man, maybe we’re the real monsters, we drop causes when we lose interest, etc.), the thematic core of it being less clear is also the thing that hurts it the most. It doesn’t seem to pick up or stick with any particular thing it’s trying to say, preferring to let the audience choose for themselves, and while that’s certainly a bold choice, I’m not sure it was the right one (then again, maybe others see it as the perfect choice, so who am I to say?). It’s not a deal-breaker by any means, but it does keep Us from soaring to the heights that Get Out did.
In the end, Us is another great success for Jordan Peele (especially given its $70+ million opening weekend), and a worthy follow-up to an astounding debut feature. It may not be as thematically rich or as bitingly satirical as his previous film, but Peele has planted his flag deep in the mainstream horror genre so confidently it’ll be impossible for him not to become a household name in the “greatest directors” conversation somewhere perhaps as soon as 10 years down the line. The writing is sharp, the performances are fantastic, what commentary and thematic weight there is is still better than most horror films will even attempt to put out there, and all the while, you can’t take your eyes off the screen. This film practically demands a second viewing, and I, for one, can’t wait to see it again.
I’m giving “Us” an 8.6/10
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.