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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Sorry, 'Nope.'

Screen Grabs: Sorry, ‘Nope.’

Plus: Interplanetary spewing barbarians in 'This is Gwar,' antic Brazilian diversion 'Jesus Kid,' more new movies

A great title that unfortunately also turns out to be the review that writes itself, Nope came galloping in on the high expectations now raised towards any Jordan Peele joint, as well as a degree of production secrecy re: its subject matter. For many, those expectations may be so insistent they just can’t be disappointed—they won’t allow it. Which to me partly explains the more positive among very divided reviews and audience responses so far, despite a big opening weekend that may drop off a cliff by next Friday.

Though no one had expected him to go into Twilight Zone-ish thrillers given his comedic background, Peele’s two prior features as writer director were terrific. Neither Get Out or Us was flawless, but both blended genre tropes, social commentary, sly humor and the macabre to highly entertaining effect—as confidently as, say, Hitchcock’s The Birds, with a similar brash sense of “OK, we know this is nonsense but let’s run with it.” Popular mainstream movies are so seldom truly surprising now, his goosing viewers with pleasurable but unpredictable scares seemed near-genius originality amidst formulaic franchises. The obvious point of comparison is M. Night Shyamalan, but Peele’s takes his equally gimmicky (if generally better) ideas with much less self-congratulatory seriousness, and is unlikely to make a movie you laugh at.

Ergo Nope is a different kind of “WTF?!” experience than a terrible Shyamalan enterprise like last year’s Old, where you’re suspended somewhere between horror and hilarity at how bad it is. This is the kind of misfire where you spend 130 minutes (when 90 would have been plenty) wondering when the very random assortment of ideas is going to pull together somehow, though they never really do—they just lie there. Some have acclaimed its suspense and thrills, which certainly testifies to a wide range of reaction, because those things absolutely flatlined for me, beyond a few early, and somewhat annoying, false-alarm jump scares.

We’ll try to avoid spoilers here, though the advertising no longer hides that Nope is about UFOs. It’s also an homage to westerns, as well as the hidden role of African-Americans in the historic American West and the Hollywood cowboy one. Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer play the adult children of a longtime movie horse trainer-handler (Keith David), whose business they inherit after his somewhat mysterious demise.

The son (cheekily named OJ) is taciturn, serious, not a “people person;” daughter Emerald is a flighty, motormouthed hustler with whom he unsurprisingly does not get along. The family ranch, located in an isolated gulch east of LA, begins being subject to strange phenomena eventually hazarded to be “extraterrestrial animals in the sky.” It’s a story concept that aligns most closely to The Mist, but tonally goes for something more like Tremors—at once laconic and whooping, cowboys vs. monsters.

But Nope feels like a checklist of antic pop culture references and industry in-jokes Peele became wedded to, then only kinda-sorta built a cohering narrative around. Nothing connects; the film’s eccentricities become a (dead) end in themselves rather than organically serving a bigger picture. Why is there so much pointless tinkering with the soundtrack? Why does the thing we’re meant to be scared of alternately manifest as a cloud, a floating sand dollar, a giant jellyfish, and some folded sheets? Why is it even here? Why does a major framing/flashback device (involving mayhem on an old sitcom set) never connect meaningfully to the present-day action? Why does somebody recite the full lyrics to “Purple People Eater”? There aren’t any answers—unless “Because this movie is quirky” counts. But it doesn’t count enough.

The general whateverness of Nope leaves its actors straining to inhabit characters that are just outlines. Kaluuya, excellent in Get Out, is here so straitjacketed by some notion of cowboy stoicism that he often seems a disinterested blank, while Palmer is contrastingly so manic she’s an irritant. Steven Yuen, whom the poster suggests as the third lead, is actually an infrequently-seen supporting player. The real co-star is Brandon Perea, who’s new to me (he was on Netflix supernatural series The OA), but is the one performer here to really draw something antic and energizing from such flimsy material.

In the end—indeed, for 130 freaking minutes—Nope feels more like M. Night Shyamalan’s Close Encounters (it’s less like his actual UFO movie Signs) than what we’d hope for from Peele, being a series of arbitrary bold leaps that just kersplat. Its oddity and mannerisms are very much the creator’s own. But that doesn’t make them good this time, or even fun. Aiming for fireworks, he’s fired off a dud—though following two home runs, one foul is allowed. Nope is playing theaters nationwide.

Several new arrivals to streaming also determinedly aim for the offbeat:

This is Gwar
OK, “offbeat” is a ludicrously tame term to apply to Gwar. They are variously described in Scott Barber’s new documentary as “A big bawdy violent sexual theatrical rock show” and “performance art with a sense of humor.” More specifically, this long-running multimedia collective’s concept is, “Basically they are interplanetary barbarian warriors who play heavy metal music and shoot bodily fluids all over the audience.” They’re not just “beyond [a] gimmick,” they’re the parody taken so far it’s beyond parody—something completely silly, yet also envelope-pushing enough to have hazarded obscenity-charge arrests.

This contribution to interplanetary cultural exchange had its roots in the early 1980s Richmond, VA college, punk, and art scenes, particularly among arts majors dissed by prissy profs for being into “low culture” (sci-fi pulps, horror movies, KISS, comics, Frazetta illustrations, etc.). Dave Brockie’s local punk band Death Piggy and Hunter Jackson’s DIY film project Scumdogs of the Universe were two entities that collided circa 1984. They pooled resources, turning into a live ensemble doing chaotically over-the-top shows, with an “open policy of misfit artists” being welcome to join in. Soon albums were being recorded and midnight-type movies made, as musicianship greatly improved (despite the cumbersome monster masks/costumes) and presentation grew ever more elaborate.

Gwar became Beavis & Butthead’s “favorite band,” forcing them to a degree on hitherto skittish MTV. The band appeared in “real” movies (Empire Records, Mystery Date) as well as “Jerry Springer” and “The Joan Rivers Show.” They were even, incredibly, nominated for a Grammy—in the same category as Annie Lennox and MC Hammer, no less. (However, truer to character, they blew a major-label contract opportunity.) They couldn’t be shamed; if you didn’t get the joke, the joke was on you. But as professional as things got in some respects, there was always an uncontrollable element to Gwar that resulted in power struggles, high personnel turnover, and a few real casualties.

Nonetheless, the ever-mutating collective carries on, now nearing its fourth decade of existence. While it may be a bigger dose (at nearly two full hours) than newbies or casual fans want, This Is Gwar is a blast, with plenty of performance footage and no lack of colorful interviews. Fittingly enough, it is now available on Shudder, a streaming platform primarily dedicated to horror and sci-fi flicks.

Jesus Kid
Going out on a slightly less extreme limb—but still quite far enough—is this film by Aly Muritiba, whose even more recent Private Desert is Brazil’s Oscar submission feature for 2022. Eugenio (Paulo Miklos) is a sad-sack writer of western novels who somewhat inexplicably gets courted by two inappropriate professional suitors. One is a movie producer who wants him to write a (non-western) screenplay for a noxious young hotshot director; the other is a sinister government agent who insists he’s the man to ghost-write the President’s autobiography.

Eugenio is appalled by both offers. Still, when government goons chase start chasing him around, he retreats in terror to the moviemakers’ offer of a three-month hotel stay with some peculiar conditions. However, that proves no safe haven—and the weird characters harassing him there soon include his own fictive creation the Jesus Kid (Sergio Marone), a trigger-happy cowpoke who soon takes control of the meta-narrative.

Some of the sharper satirical darts here get thrown at aspects of current Brazilian society, in particular indicting the greed, duplicity, and sham morality of the current Bolsonaro regime. Clearly our protagonists’s general situation is a metaphor for the absurd up-is-down universe some Brazilians feel they’re living in now, which is not so distant from Trumpworld. Yet despite the antic tone, farcical performances, and up-front Barton Fink references, Jesus Kid never quite takes flight. Diverting, it’s also something of a just-middling disappointment, given the surreal wildness intended. Maybe something got lost in translation. Indiepix Films is launching it on US On Demand and Digital platforms as of Wed/27.

The Wheel 
Sartre’s famous dictum “Hell is other people” takes a very different form in this tart indie drama written by Trent Atkinson (of the long-running Australian TV series “Home and Away”), directed by Steve Pink (Hot Tub Time Machine). Having married too young for reasons we don’t discover for some time, Albee (Amber Midthunder) and Walker (Taylor Gray) are just 24 years old—yet already at the seeming end of an eight-year marriage. Because he wants to save it, they’ve decamped to a weekend Airbnb rental in the woods, though her petulant, sniping attitude makes reconciliation prospects appear dim.

Their hosts are an older cohabiting couple just about to tie the knot, Carly (Bethany Anne Lind) and Ben (Nelson Lee). He takes an instant dislike to Albee (who wouldn’t?), preferring not to interfere in the quarrelsome youngsters’ affairs. But Carly can’t help meddling—she’s a terminal do-gooder, even if those good intentions may have wholly unintended results.

The Wheel is well-written and acted, though despite the strong performances, we don’t necessarily sense the characters’ depths sufficiently to root for their relationships—which work out in an ironical but somewhat exasperating fashion. At the end, everybody has discovered something about themselves. But I couldn’t help thinking that disillusionment and forgiveness was respectively doled out to entirely the wrong people. Quiver Distribution released The Wheel to PVOD platforms last weekend.

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