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FilmWatch Weekly: ‘Nope,’ ‘Fire of Love,’ and ‘My Donkey, My Lover, and I’

Jordan Peele's "Nope" is a thrilling summer blockbuster, even if it doesn't quite fit together; why are good bets skipping Portland's indie houses?

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Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, and Brandon Perea in “Nope.”

In 1878, Eadward Muybridge settled a bet. Former California Governor Leland Stanford wanted to know if, when a horse ran, there was ever a moment when all four of its feet were off the ground. Muybridge set up a series of cameras, each triggered to take a photograph in rapid succession as the critter ran past. Viewed in rapid succession, these images created the illusion of movement, and the seeds that would sprout into cinema were planted.

We know the names of Muybridge and Stanford, but the identity of the individual on the horse, a Black jockey, is lost to history. Jordan Peele takes that historical tidbit and uses it as the basis for the main characters of his third movie, the bluntly titled Nope.

OJ Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald Haywood (Keke Palmer) are that rider’s descendants and, with their grandfather, the owners of the only Black-owned ranch that provides horses for use in Hollywood films. After grandpa dies in a mysterious accident involving coins and keys falling from the sky, they find themselves the sole owners, struggling to keep Heywood’s Hollywood Horses afloat.

To make ends meet, OJ has been selling some of their stock to a nearby Old West theme park run by a guy named Jupe (Steven Yuen), who turns out to have some Hollywood connections of his own. Their fortunes take a turn when, one night, they glimpse strange shapes moving in the clouds above the ranch. Instead of an existential threat, they see this as a get-rich-quick opportunity, stocking up on surveillance cameras at the local Fry’s, where they attract the attention of an overly eager employee named Angel (Brandon Perea) and, eventually, a famous cinematographer named Antlers (onetime B-movie action star Michael Wincott).

This ragtag team sets out to capture footage of the visitor, but if I told you what they find, (a) you’d hate me for it and (b) I’d never get invited to another press screening. So you’ll just have to guess. I’ll just say that the marketing campaign for Nope has done an excellent job of keeping several plot twists under wraps.

When your first film is an Oscar-winning culture bomb on the scale of Peele’s Get Out, there’s something of an unfair pressure on you to top it every time out. It’s fair to say that Us, Peele’s follow-up to Get Out, was just about as inventive, frightening, and darkly funny as its predecessor, but it didn’t land with quite the same impact.

Nope blows most movies opening on over 3,000 U.S. screens out of the water. It’s consistently compelling, eerily tense at times, hilarious at others, clearly the product of a filmmaker who knows exactly how to lead an audience by its nose while making sure they love every minute of it.

And yet, it’s not a fully complete or coherent vision. The shifts in tone from incisive satire to sheer terror aren’t as confidently plotted, and aspects of the story that show initial promise tend to peter out. In particular, this is true of an unforgettable subplot involving Jude’s background that provides both the most harrowing images in Nope and its single funniest scene.

In Get Out and Us, Peele used genre metaphors to explore racial exploitation and oppression, and the ways that American society puts on blinders to avoid having to confront those sins. If anything, he undertakes a broader inquiry in Nope, trying to force an awareness of the ways the entertainment industry, in particular, treats humans (especially Black bodies) and animals (not just horses) as disposable fuel for its manufactured dreams.

The problem is that the superficially entertaining aspects of the movie and the smuggled Larger Meanings aren’t seamlessly integrated. When you can see the work of folding these two halves into each other, the impact is inevitably a bit blunted. Nope is a thrilling summer blockbuster, probably the best one of the year, but it’s no greater than the sum of its parts.

It is, though, a big-screen spectacle and should be seen in the best possible environment. By this I mean it should not be seen in Auditorium 1 at the Lloyd Cinemas. Pony up the extra cash for IMAX if you can; it should be worth it.

(Opens in theaters everywhere on Friday, July 22)

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WHILE MOVIE THEATER CHAINS continue to struggle to get back to pre-COVID audience numbers, independent cinemas seem to be having an even tougher go of it. Older audiences remain gun-shy about venturing back, and it’s almost customary at this point for indie and foreign films to be available simultaneously in theaters and for home viewing.

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Part of the problem, though, stems from some of the programming choices made by the indie houses. Granted, with the diminishment of the erstwhile Northwest Film Center, there’s one fewer outlet for adventurous cinema in Portland. But there are still a number of appealing, weird, smart-looking titles that pass by town on a regular basis. Flux Gourmet, from the director of Berberian Sound Studio and The Duke of Burgundy, is one. Earwig, from the director of Innocence and Evolution, is another. But with Marvel and Marcel (charming as both are) increasingly encroaching on arthouse territory, the number of screens dedicated to boundary-pushing movies keeps shrinking and shrinking.

Instead, local audiences have the option of seeing the gentle, insipid French romantic comedy My Donkey, My Lover, and I in the friendly confines of the Regal Fox Tower. It’s a perfectly ordinary flick about a 5th-grade teacher (Laure Calamy of the original, French series Call My Agent!) who’s having an affair with the father of one of her students. Upset that he’s spending part of the summer break with his family on a six-day hiking expedition, she books a spot on the same route. Hijinks and presumed hilarity ensue. The titular donkey is the one our protagonist gets saddled with on the hike, which apparently re-creates a famous (in France?) expedition that Robert Louis Stevenson took and described in his 1879 Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes. Unfortunately, neither director Caroline Vignal nor the film’s American distributor thought to make this clear, resulting in a lot of wasted time wondering why there’s a donkey involved at all.

The donkey (named Patrick) is stubborn. Calamy’s besotted character is stubborn. Eventually they both learn to get along, but not before a surfeit of unfunny slapstick and a belated realization that a guy who’s cheating on his wife with his kid’s 5th-grade teacher is probably not worth getting all hung up on. My point is that My Donkey, My Lover, and I would lose almost nothing on a smaller screen. And yet it’s taking up sparse cinematic real estate where other, much more interesting movies can’t find purchase.

(Opens on Friday, July 22, at the Regal Fox Tower)

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THE ABOVE DOES NOT APPLY to Fire of Love, the fantastic new documentary about the lifelong love affair between obsessive vulcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft. Director Sara Dosa offers a trove of vintage interviews, and Miranda July’s appropriately spectral narration provides a slightly surreal touch, but the reason to catch this documentary in a theater is the amazing footage, most of it taken by the Kraffts, of volcanos in action. Fire of Love does more than tell a powerful, romantic tale of scientific curiosity; it makes you understand what drew these perfect mates toward the spectacles of natural beauty and unleashed destruction that eventually took their lives. I’ll be interviewing Dosa about the making of the film, so check this space next week for more.

(Opens Friday, July 22, at the Hollywood Theatre and the Living Room Theatres. Friday night’s screening at the Hollywood will feature a post-film Q&A with USGS geophysicist Andy Lockhart.)

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since. As the former manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, and later the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité, he immersed himself in the cinematic education that led to his position as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, Mohan pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017. He can’t quite seem to break the habit, though, of loving and writing about movies.

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