THE GREATEST BEER RUN EVER (2022)

September 25, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. “Can I buy you a drink?” A simple phrase that can have a variety of meanings. In 1967, John “Chickie” Donohue did more than buy his buddies a drink. He hand-delivered beer after tracking them down at their military posts during the Vietnam War. Writer-director Peter Farrelly (an Oscar winner for GREEN BOOK, 2018) and co-writers Brian Hayes Currie (also an Oscar winner GREEN BOOK) and Pete Jones (HALL PASS, 2011) tell the story of Chickie’s dubious trip to the front lines. His mission was to show the neighborhood boys that folks back home care, and the results proved eye-opening.

Zac Efron plays Chickie Donohue, a Merchant Marine from the Inwood neighborhood of New York City. Chickie is a hard-drinking slacker and kind of a joke to his family and friends. He doesn’t really take life seriously and has no perceivable ambition. He is, however, a staunch defender of his country and the military personnel fighting a war that no one seems to be able to define. Especially ‘the boys’ from the neighborhood … too many who have died for the cause. One typically “full of hot air” evening at the local tavern where “The Colonel” (Bill Murray) tends bars, hones patriotism, and honors those who (like him) have served in war, Chickie blurts out his intention to head to Vietnam and hand-deliver a beer to each of his buddies stationed there. His drinking cohorts support his idea, yet fully believe this is simply the next thing that Chickie will never follow through on.

To everyone’s surprise, and despite pleas from his anti-war sister (played by Andy Serkis’ daughter Ruby Ashbourne Serkis), Chickie loads up a duffel bag with dozens of cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon and heads out. That seems to be the extent of his plan because he basically has to charm and ‘luck’ his way through each progressive stop once he has secured a spot on a container ship headed that way. In the film, he secures a 72-hour leave, but in real life, as documented in the memoir written by John “Chick” Donohue and JT Molloy, his journey took almost 8 weeks.

The film plays a bit like a road trip, where Chickie interacts with multiple characters along the way. Some in the military mistake him for undercover CIA, which he uses to his advantage. At a Saigon bar, Chickie debates with war correspondents, including a photojournalist played by Oscar winner Russell Crowe. Chickie questions why they report “only the bad stuff”, which is tough on morale back home, while the reporters counter with the defense of only telling the truth. A later part of Chickie’s journey finds him in the middle of the Tet Offensive, running for his life with Crowe’s character.

Director Farrelly, long celebrated as an iconic comedic filmmaker with his brother Peter, doesn’t break any new ground here, but the remarkable true story keeps us watching. In fact, it feels a bit like a war movie from the 1950s … mostly light, with a well-meaning, charming lead actor with limited range. Songs from the era are included, and the message seems to be that politicians don’t always tell the truth (an obvious fact that we live with every day). Chickie’s personal post-trip pledge of ‘less drinking, more thinking’ would be a good direction for many, and Farrelly includes a modern-day photo of Chickie and the boys from the neighborhood over the closing credits. A nice touch.

Opening in limited theaters on September 23, 2022 and on AppleTV+ beginning September 30, 2022

WATCH THE TRAILER


SEE HOW THEY RUN (2022)

September 16, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. It’s 1953 in London’s West End and the cast of “The Mousetrap” is celebrating its 100th performance. Of course, Agatha Christie’s play with the twist ending would go on to be the all-time longest running show in the West End, interrupted only by COVID restrictions in 2020. This is the first feature from director Tom George, and the screenplay by Mark Chappell involves a murder mystery wrapped around the murder mystery play.

Harris Dickinson plays the Dickie Attenborough, the original Detective Sergeant Trotter … and yes, that’s the same Richard Attenborough who played the likable John Hammond, the developer who “spared no expense” in creating Jurassic Park. So while Dickinson plays the detective on stage, it’s Oscar winner Sam Rockwell who plays Inspector Stoppard … the London detective assigned to solve the real murder of Leo Kopernick (Oscar winner Adrien Brody), which occurred in the theater during the cast party. Kopernick, an abrasive American director, was in talks to create a film version of the play.

Assisting Stoppard with the investigation is rookie Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan), who writes every detail in her notepad, and is overly quick to name the killer in her eagerness to solve the case. Rockwell chooses a laconic, prosaic approach for his Inspector Stoppard to contrast mightily with Ronan’s overzealous Constable Stalker. We are treated to two terrific actors playing off each other. Unfortunately, the screenplay and overall movie simply doesn’t deserve these two … or the balance of the talented cast which includes Ruth Wilson, an unusually flamboyant David Oyelowo, and the always great (and criminally underappreciated) Shirley Henderson.

With the recent success and popularity of Rian Johnson’s KNIVES OUT (2019), it’s perfectly understandable why producers and movie studios would want to capitalize on the newly discovered beauty of whodunnits, but there is a distinct line drawn between effective murder mysteries (whether dramatic or comedic) and those that offer no real punch or tension. The theater makes a grand setting, and the well-choreographed hallway scene provides a dash of fun, but overall this one is just too flat to recommend.

Opens in theaters on September 16, 2022

WATCH THE TRAILER


PINOCCHIO (2022)

September 8, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Once upon a time … in 1880 (or so) … writer Carlo Collodi (aka Lorenzini) had his original “Story of a Marionette” published. The story of his character Pinocchio has since been told to countless children through just about every possible form of media. The classic Disney animated feature film from 1940 won two Oscars (song, score) and the recent 2019 Italian film version received two Oscar nominations. So why is it that we continue to find new ways to tell the story? Well, because the messages are crucial for kids to understand: pay attention to your conscience, beware of temptations, and decisions have consequences. Of course, anytime a filmmaker re-imagines a classic, folks will line up to shout about how unnecessary it is. However, with a kids’ movie, we must recognize that expectations and tastes have shifted. It’s a bit more challenging to get today’s kids to pay attention for 90 minutes.

This version comes to us from Disney as a Live Action film enhanced with computer animation. No, Pinocchio isn’t played by a real person, and in fact, there are only a few real actors on screen – the most important being Oscar winner Tom Hanks as Geppetto. However, the computer-generated Pinocchio (looking almost identical to the 1940 animated version) interacts with both human actors and other computer-generated characters, almost always in a seamless manner.

The film opens as our narrator (Jiminy Cricket) explains that we are in for a “humdinger of a tale.” We soon see low-talking Geppetto (Oscar winner Tom Hanks) in his shop of ‘Toys, Clocks, and Oddments.” He’s busy crafting, and talking to, a wooden puppet meant to fill the void that has left Geppetto a grieving man. His fantastical wall of cuckoo clocks features beloved Disney characters, including the instantly recognizable Jessica Rabbit from WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT (1988). That film, as well as this one, were directed by Robert Zemeckis (an Oscar winner for FORREST GUMP, 1994). Mr. Zemeckis was also one of the screenwriters along with Chris Weitz and Simon Farnaby.

Most everyone on the planet knows the story of Pinocchio. The Blue Fairy (Cynthia Erivo) tasks Jiminy Cricket (voiced perfectly by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to be the conscience of the ‘almost real boy’ and sets the ground rules for becoming real: Pinocchio must be brave, truthful, and unselfish. As with all of us, Pinocchio immediately faces temptation and danger. His comes in the forms of Stromboli, Pleasure Island, and ultimately, Monstro the giant sea creature. Tension is elevated when Geppetto and Pinocchio are separated, and a great adventure follows. Much of this follows the original storyline, with contemporary flourishes included … not all of which are positive additions.

Benjamin Evans Ainsworth (TV mini-series “The Haunting of Bly Manor”) voices Pinocchio, and of course, Mr. Hanks is spot on as Geppetto. Other voice and live acting is delivered by Angus Wright, Keegan-Michael Key, Kyanne Lamaya, Luke Evans (as The Coachman), and Lorraine Bracco (voicing new character Sofia the Seagull). Alan Silvestri composed the film’s score and Don Burgess was the Director of Photography. Ms. Erivo serves up a “big” version of “When You Wish Upon a Star” in a key most kids won’t come close to, but other than a few moments too dark for the youngest of kids, this should make for enjoyable family viewing … which may not be the case when Guillermo del Toro releases his stop-motion animated version later this year for Netflix.

Premieres on DISNEY+ on September 8, 2022

WATCH THE TRAILER


HONK FOR JESUS. SAVE YOUR SOUL (2022)

September 2, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Welcome to the Greater Paths Baptist Church. Or what’s left of it. Writer-director Adammo Ebo has expanded her 2018 short story (same title) into a feature film that serves up a satirical look at the proliferation of mega churches and all that entails – ego, greed, self-absorption. Her best move was casting Regina Hall and Sterling K Brown in the crucial lead roles.

In the faux-archival footage, we see Pastor Lee-Curtis Brown (Sterling K Brown) eloquently and passionately sermonizing to the massive congregation. At its peak, his church had 26,000 members who filled the offering plates each Sunday. We know this because this pastor is not shy about flashing his designer label clothes or collectible cars, or mentioning the private jets and helicopters. He uses these glitzy material goods to reinforce what good Christians each member is. But that was then, and this is now. The church has been closed due to a very public scandal involving Pastor Lee-Curtis and his inappropriate behavior with teenage boys.

The story here involves the pastor and his first lady wife Trinitie (Regina Hall) as they strategize about creating excitement for the grand re-opening of their church. The scandal is clearly the biggest hurdle; but so is Heaven’s House, a local church run by ‘Pastor Sumpter and Pastor Sumpter’, a husband and wife team played by Conphidance and Nicole Beharie (so good in BREAKING, 2022). After the scandal, Heaven’s House welcomed many transferring members and is now in the process of growing their church to a new level.

This is a mockumentary and the “documentary” filmmakers follow Lee-Curtis and Trinitie around most of the day, sometimes even when they aren’t particularly welcome. Because of this, we see Lee-Curtis as a narcissist mostly devoid of any semblance of reasonable perception of how others view him. He may seek the road to redemption, but that trust has been broken. Trinitie stood by her man through the hard times, and it seems clear they are both desperate to regain the power and privilege that is now lost.

Sterling K Brown and Regina Hall are both fully committed to these roles. Brown’s intensity, no matter how displaced his character feels, absolutely works. And Regina Hall’s performance is even more fun to watch. She’s especially effective at showing Trinitie’s inner turmoil of maintaining dignity versus the desire for the power lifestyle. She excels at biting her tongue and struggles to avoid letting her true feelings show … she’s a pillar of loyalty behind a cheerleader’s fake smile. She also delivers the perfect final shot.

This mockumentary isn’t funny in the Christopher Guest way, but rather with a bleak commentary on power-hungry people and megachurches, with a few exceptions. What once was a congregation over 20,000 is now only the “Devout Five”. We get the best ever pinkie toe joke, and Ms. Hall and Mr. Brown go all in on their rendition of Crime Mob’s “Knuck You if You Buck” while driving. It’s a bit confusing that the faux-doc doesn’t fully follow the idea of only showing what the camera crew captures, but the description of “EGO” as ‘edging God out’, and a marketing plan seemingly tied to a glittery handheld sign and statue of Jesus give us some idea about these two. In TOMBSTONE, Doc Holiday states, “My hypocrisy knows no bounds”, and that’s so true for Lee-Curtis and Trinitie. While there are flashes of brilliant satire, unfortunately the target is just too easy, and the filmmaker chooses to remain on the surface rather than dig deep for the juicy part.

Opens in theaters on September 2, 2022

WATCH THE TRAILER


DAY SHIFT (2022)

August 18, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. We are taught from an early age to take good care of our teeth. For vampires, oral health care is even more important. See, their fangs cannot grow back … in fact, that’s the only part of their bodies that those supernatural powers can’t heal. This leads us to the premise of this film – vampire hunters collecting fangs not just to thin the heard, but also for the monetary reward attached to such valuable collectibles. Look, I’m trying here; but this first feature from long-time stuntman and stunt coordinator JJ Perry suffers from a lackluster script seemingly gap-filled to connect a handful of decent ideas and raucous fight sequences.

Bud Jablonski (Oscar winner Jamie Foxx) is a struggling pool cleaner. He’s behind on his rent, and his daughter needs braces and her school tuition is due. Making things more stressful and urgent, his ex-wife Jocelyn (Meagan Good) is threatening to pack up and move their daughter Paige (rising star Zion Broadnax) cross-country from the San Fernando Valley to Florida. She gives Bud just a few days to raise the money. We get a tour of the familiar spots in the valley, and then quickly move to the first action sequence. Bud’s “real” job is hunting vampires and selling those precious fangs. He takes on an “old” lady in a cartoonish fight sequence that serves as a precursor to most every fight scene that follows. The fangs don’t bring much on the black market run by the always colorful Peter Stormare, but it leads Bud to request re-entry into the Vampire Hunter’s Union … a very inspired idea in a film that isn’t consistently filled with them. Bud’s sponsor is none other than the legendary vampire hunter, Big John Elliott (played masterfully by Snoop Dogg).

It turns out Bud has been expelled from the Union for multiple infractions over the years, and the shop steward (a mulleted Eric Lange) has one condition … Bud must be accompanied on his hunts by nerdy union clerk Seth (Dave Franco). What we soon learn is that Seth is not cut out for the field, and more importantly, Bud’s old lady kill was actually the daughter of Queen Vamp Audrey (Karla Souza), who also happens to be a real estate developer looking to mainstream the population of vampires into the Valley. Audrey seeks revenge by kidnapping Bud’s ex-wife and daughter, and Bud’s rescue mission becomes a veritable blood bath.

The Miami Vice joke made me chuckle, but for an action-horror-comedy, there are simply too few laughs. With the talent on screen, we can only look to the script for fault. Director Perry certainly knows his way around stunts and fight scenes, and while we may question the career choices of a very talented Jamie Foxx, he continues to work regularly and expand his producing skills. For those who enjoy sinking their teeth into over-the-top fight sequences (Perry worked on the first two John Wick movies) and aren’t too demanding on the cleverness of jokes, this one will likely work. And I likely speak for all viewers when I say that Snoop Dogg makes the coolest cowboy since ‘the man with no name’.

Opens on Netflix beginning August 12, 2022

WATCH THE TRAILER


EASTER SUNDAY (2022)

August 5, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Director Jay Chandrasekhar and co-writers Kate Angelo and Ken Cheng have crafted a tribute to the Filipino community, paying homage to family bonds and the culture. The obvious comparisons here are CRAZY RICH ASIANS (2018) and any number of Bollywood movies offering insight and a peek behind the curtain of Indian families. As global societies continue to disburse and intertwine with various races and cultures, it only makes sense for us to gain more understanding of each other … and what better way than through comedy?

In the film, real life comedian Jo Koy plays fictional comedian and aspiring actor Joe Valencia. Joe moved to Los Angeles, away from his Bay area family, to pursue a career in entertainment. It’s been a struggle, and he’s best known for a beer commercial where he looks into the camera and says, “Let’s get this party started, bayBee!” One of the recurring gags is how so many either recite the line to him, or plea with him to do so. Up for a big role in a TV pilot, Joe once again lets down his high school aged son, by attending an audition rather than a parent meeting at school. Junior (Brandon Wardell) is struggling a bit with his grades at the prestigious prep school he attends. See, Joe’s career as an actor might not be rolling, but his ex-wife is a powerful attorney married to a professional athlete.

The real fun begins as we see the tension between father and son on the road trip they make to join the rest of the family for Easter Sunday … an important day for Filipinos. Along the way, we experience two more of the film’s running gags: Joe’s mom (Lydia Gaston) pressuring him not just to show up, but to not be late, and Joe’s agent (played by director Chandrasekhar), whose use of ‘entering a tunnel, so I’ll be losing the connection’ is his standard way of ending a conversation when he’s done. Once they arrive, we get yet another running gag – the ongoing sister rivalry between Joe’s mom and his Tita Theresa (Tia Carrere). It’s a quick trip for Joe and Junior, but it’s filled with family drama, Joe’s impromptu stand-up in church, a love interest for Junior (Eva Noblezada), a run-in with a former lover (Tiffany Haddish) for Joe, a questionable business investment between Joe and his cousin Eugene (Eugene Cordero), a confrontation with a local gangster named Dev Deluxe (Asif Ali), and an all-in family karaoke song. There is even a Lou Diamond Phillips tie-in that adds a touch of class.

The writers and director have worked mostly in TV to this point, and that is just too obvious. A TV sitcom style rarely succeeds on the big screen, and though we do get some laughs, there is an amateurish feel to the proceedings. On the upside, some insight into Filipino culture is welcome, I now know Manny Pacquaio’s birthday, and it was my first exposure to “Hype Truck!”

Opens in theaters on August 5, 2022

WATCH THE TRAILER


LUCK (2022, animation)

August 4, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. “Find a penny, pick it up, and all day long you’ll have good luck.” That’s how the old saying goes, and it plays a prominent part in this first animated feature film from Skydance Animation. Directed by former Disney animation choreographer Peggy Holmes, and co-written by Kiel Murray (CARS, 2006) and writing partners Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, who teamed on the “Kung Fu Panda” franchise (as well as other projects), the film’s approach shifted when Skydance hired John Lasseter as head of animation. You may know Mr. Lasseter as the creative force behind Pixar and such groundbreaking films as TOY STORY (1995), but he’s also the guy that faced multiple accusations of workplace sexual impropriety and left Disney Pixar in late 2017. His Skydance hiring brought a change of director to the project, and was the reason Oscar winner Emma Thompson recused herself, replaced by Oscar winner Jane Fonda, who evidently had no such qualms about working for Lasseter.

Sam Greenfield (voiced by Eva Noblezada) is a klutzy 18-year-old who has ‘aged out’ of the foster home where she has lived. Never experiencing a ‘forever family’, Sam has maintained a positive outlook on life, despite what she sees as a never-ending streak of mishaps, accidents, unfortunate coincidences, and overall bad luck. She’s been very supportive of her younger friend Hazel (Adalyn Spoon), who holds out hope for adoption and is a collector of good luck charms … missing only a lucky penny. While bumbling through her first days as an independent woman, Sam finds a lucky penny, only to have bad luck strike (in the form of an automatic toilet) before she can deliver it to Hazel. And soon, Sam is chatting up a talking black cat (Simon Pegg) before they both enter a portal that whisks them to the Land of Luck.

It might seem odd that a black cat brough Sam her first taste of good luck, but as the story develops, so does their friendship. The Land of Luck is run by a dragon (Jane Fonda), and it’s her Captain (Whoopi Goldberg) that has it out for Bob … and the shenanigans that Sam brings to this new world certainly don’t help. The Land of Luck consists of leprechauns and four-leaf clovers, rabbits (none missing a foot), and pigs (never knew they were considered lucky). Down below the Land of Luck is the land of Bad Luck, and it’s Jeff the Unicorn (a terrific Flula Borg) who is charged with keeping the ‘right’ mixture of good luck and bad that gets sent to the land of humans. Yes, it’s all a bit convoluted, but what the movie gets right are the colorful visuals and the fun characters. Sam, Bob, the Dragon, and Jeff are all memorable in their own way.

It seems pretty clear that John Lasseter’s fingerprints are on the final film, as influences from INSIDE OUT and SOUL are quite evident … although those films are far superior. Where this one falls short is in memorable and pointed storytelling, always a strength of Pixar. We are left a bit befuddled on the takeaway message. Are our lives determined by a mixture of good and bad luck? What about making our own luck and forging our own path? Taking responsibility for our own actions and building our own network of friends and acquaintances seems every bit as important as whether the toast lands jelly-side up or down. Despite all that, it’s a pretty solid first animated feature from a studio likely to continue to improve as more projects are released – assuming they have the best of luck!

In select theaters and on AppleTV+ on August 5, 2022

WATCH THE TRAILER


BULLET TRAIN (2022)

August 3, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. If you are one that still needs proof that movie stars matter, this latest from director David Leitch (a former stuntman who also directed ATOMIC BLONDE, 2017) and screenwriter Zak Olkewicz (adapted from Kotaro Isaka’s 2010 novel, “Maria Beetle”) may be submitted as evidence. Replace Brad Pitt with almost any other actor, and this one becomes borderline unwatchable. However, with the Oscar winner, there is sufficient charm, humor, and entertainment to keep us around for the more than two hour run time.

Mr. Pitt stars as Ladybug, a floppy bucket hat wearing last minute fill-in for an assassin who called in sick. His handler (voiced by Oscar winner Sandra Bullock) walks him through what is supposed to be a simple snatch and grab job involving a briefcase. Of course, it turns out to be anything but simple as the train is filled with what seems to be an endless stream of contract killers intent on securing the same briefcase. Among those are Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry). Mr. Taylor-Johnson continues his tradition of over-acting and lacking the charm he believes he has, while Mr. Henry’s obsession with Thomas the Tank Engine at least gives his character a reason for us to be annoyed. The two are referred to as British brothers or even ‘twins’, which gives you some idea of what the film wants you to buy as humor.

A slew of other characters include Joey King as Prince, the “Shibumi” reading type who pushes a kid off a roof, and then uses her skill of crying-on-demand to escape most danger; Andrew Koji as Kimura, that kid’s distraught father; Hiroyuki Sanada as Kimura’s father; Zazie Beetz as The Hornet; rapper Bad Bunny as Wolf; Logan Lerman as the son of a Russian gangster, and Lerman spends much of the movie auditioning for the title character in “Weekend at Bernie’s”; and Michael Shannon as said Russian gangster, White Death. Beyond all of these highly recognizable folks, we also get two very high-profile cameos, both used for comic effect.

In between the one-minute stops on the trip from Tokyo to Kyoto, there is an abundance of fighting – comical, rapidly-paced, and violent – using such available props as the features on a smart toilet, knives, guns, swords, poison, bombs, and a venomous (incorrectly labeled as poisonous in the movie) Boomslang snake. Since most of the action takes place on the train, we get action in passenger cars, the galley, the lounge, the control booth, and even on top of the speeding train.

It’s Pitt’s character who keeps us interested, and the movie drags when he is off screen. Ladybug is a skilled improvisational fighter, although his recent personal growth through therapy has him eschewing guns, dwelling on his inherent bad luck, and reciting affirmations and wisdoms, when he can remember them. Mostly, by golly, he just wants to be a nicer person (quite a short trip for a contract killer). This chaos and spontaneous convention of bad players were all part of White Death’s plan, which is revealed late in the film.

It appears director Leitch (a former renowned stuntman) worked diligently to create a new form of zany by blending Guy Ritchie’s best work with Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” films, and then adding a dash of ‘who-done-what-to-whom?” Instead, with the near slapstick action and goofy dialogue, it plays more like a modern day CANNONBALL RUN, which was also directed by a former stuntman (the legendary Hal Needham). As a bonus, we also get the Japanese version of “Stayin’ Alive”, replete with Brad Pitt strutting through Tokyo in tennis shoes.

Opens in theaters on August 5, 2022

WATCH THE TRAILER


VENGEANCE (2022)

July 28, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Cultural differences between various states are a big part of what gives the United States its flavor of diversity. The west coast is much different from the east coast, and both coasts contrast with the Midwest. Even within states, the differences can be fascinating. Think of upstate New York versus Manhattan, or the forests of Redding versus the glitz of Los Angeles. Perhaps no cultural comparison of states is more stark than that of the home pride of Texas versus the elitism of New York City. Writer-director-producer-lead actor BJ Novak seizes the opportunity to serve up these differences on a platter, while exposing a touch of reality and hope from both geographic areas.

You likely recall Mr. Novak as Ryan, the young staffer on the TV series “The Office” (in which he also had a hand in writing and directing some episodes). He quickly establishes that stereotypes will be hit head-on, and his self-awareness is at play in an opening sequence featuring Novak’s Ben Manalowitz and his bro-buddy John (a cameo by John Mayer). They improvise the douchey attitude of city-dwelling types whose interest in one-night gratifications overrides any deeply buried thoughts of a meaningful relationship with the opposite sex. Their constant use of “hundred percent” to express agreement in the latest lame point made by the other won’t be the last humorous sequence that also conveys a bit of disappointment in society.

One night, Ben receives a call from Ty Shaw (Boyd Holbrook) informing him that Abilene Shaw (Lio Tipton) has died unexpectedly. Ty believes Ben was Abilene’s serious boyfriend, while Ben has to search his phone to discover that she was but one of many casual hook-ups. Roped into flying to Texas for the funeral, Ben stumbles through the eulogy by saying “she loved music”, a sentiment that endears him to her family. Despite having a coveted job as a writer for ‘The New Yorker’, Ben has his sights set on becoming a popular podcaster, and things fall into place when Ty discloses his conspiracy theory that, rather than die of an afterparty overdose in an oil field, his sister Abilene was murdered – perhaps by a Mexican cartel. Ben quickly pitches the idea to renowned podcast producer Eloise (Issa Rae), who green lights “Dead White Girl.” OK, so most of the humor here is a bit dark.

This much information is included in order to give a taste of the twists and turns that Novak has in store. Abilene’s family embraces him for staying to investigate, not understanding that his goal here is professional advancement rather than solving a case … a case that was closed by the local law enforcement – an incompetent and apathetic Mike and Dan. It’s Ben’s interaction with the family that are key to many of Novak’s points. Mother Sharon (J. Smith-Cameron, “Succession”) is quietly wise. Granny (Louanne Stephens, “Longmire”) is excessively direct. Abilene’s two sisters, Paris (Isabella Amara) and Jasmine (Dove Cameron), are respectively, a goth wanna-be filmmaker and a rudderless dreamer of becoming famous. The little brother, nicknamed “El Stupido” by the family, is played by newcomer Eli Bickel and he has a particular phobia that adds yet another touch.

Ben’s investigation finds him crossing paths with a local drug dealer named Sancholo (Zach Villa), who displays polar opposite personalities in front of his crew and then behind closed doors with Ben. Perhaps the most interesting character in the film is local record producer Quentin Sellers (Ashton Kutcher). Quentin is a smooth talker who impresses Ben with his philosophical meanderings, while donning attire that pops with flair. It’s also during the investigative stage that Ben learns all there is to learn about the sanctity of Whataburger for Texans, and how those in West Texas view the big cities of Dallas and Houston … again, more humor and truth.

My description of Novak’s film is ‘observational dramedy’. He utilizes the current political divisions in the country and blends it with the dominance and corruption of social media. By embracing stereotypes, he manages to pull back the curtain and expose the humanity that exists, as well as the darkness in some. The abrupt finale is startling as it seems to go against many of the points Novak makes throughout, but it’s clear he has a bright future as a filmmaker with something to say.

Opens in theaters July 29, 2022

WATCH THE TRAILER


NOPE (2022)

July 20, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. With his first two films, GET OUT (2017) and US (2019), writer-director-producer Jordan Peele already has an Oscar and has firmly established himself as one of the most innovative and visionary filmmakers working today. He has entered the revered class of directors whose new films are automatically ‘must see’. This is in spite of our knowing full well that he doesn’t strive for mass accessibility, and typically seems less focused on character development and more focused on what’s happening to those characters and how they react. Mr. Peele’s latest is a unique blend of Science Fiction, Horror, and Comedy, with a dose of horses, UFOs, and box store employees. At its core, the film is about chasing the spectacle of a spectacle, so that one might also become a spectacle.

A cold opening is a bit of ‘found footage’ from a horrific event on the set of a TV show featuring a chimp named Gordy. We have no idea how this fits in to what we are about to watch, but it’s shocking and disturbing. We then shift to find Otis Haywood Sr (Keith David) working the horses on a ranch with his son, OJ Jr (Oscar winner Daniel Kaluuya, JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH, 2021). Dad founded the Haywood Hollywood Ranch to train and handle horses for the entertainment industry – movies, TV shows, advertisements. A mysterious death means OJ Jr and his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer, AKEELAH AND THE BEE, 2006) must take over running the ranch; however, a hilarious scene on set highlights the differences between big brother and little sister. OJ understands horses, but is laconic and reserved. Emerald is hungry for personal fame and is bursting with energy and dreams. She has little use for the ranch, while OJ is devoted to carrying on dad’s work – knowing he needs Emerald’s personality.

The suspense is turned up to 11 when strange things begin happening on the ranch and in the sky. OJ (his name is a running gag) and Emerald recognize this is their opportunity to cash in by securing photographic evidence of UFO (or UAP) and alien activity. Joining in on the mission is Angel (a terrific Brandon Perea), a tech nerd from Fry’s Electronics. The trio is joined later by renowned cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott using a Tom Waits voice), who understands the importance of capturing what OJ and Emerald call “the Oprah shot”. Obviously, this is Peele’s commentary on how folks today long for their chance to shine in the spotlight – and capitalize monetarily on the moment. Also recognizing this shot at fame is Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), the owner of a local western-themed amusement park. Jupe is a former child actor whose career included “Kid Sheriff” and a role in the sitcom featured in the opening sequence with Gordy the chimp. He has tapped into the skyward activities, but longs for more.

Purposefully vague is my approach in writing about this, as director Peele and cinematographer extraordinaire, Hoyte Van Hoytema (frequent collaborator with Christopher Nolan) serve up some incredible visuals and high-suspense sequences, and it’s best if you know as little as possible going in. It’s easy to spot influences of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977), “The Twilight Zone”, and other Sci-Fi classics, as well as directors Steven Spielberg and Alfred Hitchcock. In a tip of the cap to film history, Peele ties in the early moving picture work of Eadweard Muybridge and his 1878 clip, “The Horse in Motion.” It’s a brilliant touch that cinephiles will appreciate.

Supporting work comes from Donna Mills, Oz Perkins, Eddie Jemison, and Terry Notary as Gordy the Chimp, but it’s the chemistry between Kaluuya and Palmer that make a relatively thin story succeed as commentary on society. Peele even gets in a few pot shots at the media (TMZ) and the oversaturation of celebrity. The desolate setting of the hills and valleys outside of Los Angeles make for a perfect setting, as does the contrasting use of daytime and nighttime for certain shots. Peele proves yet again that he has a real feel for serving up commentary disguised as tension, or is it tension doused with commentary? Either way, I’m lining up now for his next film, whatever that may be.

Opening in theaters July 22, 2022

WATCH THE TRAILER