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

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AD ASTRA (2019)

September 19, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Astronaut Roy McBride’s pulse rate may never go above 80 bpm, but mine certainly did during the opening sequence which features a stunning and spectacular space fall. It’s unlike anything we’ve seen before. Roy has trained his entire life for this work; however his true mental state is only revealed slowly throughout the film’s run. After witnessing his actions and hearing (through narration) his thoughts, we are left to decide what we think of Roy … stoic hero or simmering psychopath? Either way, he’s haunted by a past that has rendered him mission-focused and the world’s worst party guest. The film takes place in the not-too-distant future.

Brad Pitt stars as Roy McBride, in what may be his career best (and most inward-looking) performance. Roy is the son of NASA hero Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), the leader of The Lima Project – a decades old mission to Neptune tasked with searching for extraterrestrial life. The elder McBride has long been assumed dead with no signals or response signs in many years. A recent power surge that threatens humanity has been traced to Neptune, and now Roy is being used as bait to track down his rogue astronaut father and prevent him from causing further damage.

Roy’s assignment requires him to journey from Earth to the Moon to Mars and, ultimately, on to Neptune. Along the way, he travels with Colonel Pruitt (Donald Sutherland), an old friend of Clifford’s, who is sent along to make sure the son doesn’t acquiesce to the father. Of course, it’s a nice touch to have Tommy Lee Jones and Donald Sutherland together again in a space movie 20 years after SPACE COWBOYS, a more upbeat adventure. Here we see a populated moon – yet another place we humans have messed up – replete with turf wars. There is also a shootout in a space capsule, and an unscheduled stop that provides shocking visuals and causes a shift in the crew.

James Gray, who directed the vastly underrated THE LOST CITY OF Z (2016) delivers a space film with terrific visuals and a script he co-wrote with Ethan Gross, that examines how a father can affect the life of his son even when he’s not present. The film has an unusual pace to it. There are a few action sequences, but the core of the film is the psychological state of son versus absent father. Roy’s inability to connect with loved ones is displayed through flashbacks involving Liv Tyler, and it’s his own narration that provides us much more insight than his regularly scheduled psychological tests.

Ruth Negga (LOVING) has a nice turn as Helen Lantos, one of the key officials at the Mars space station, and her encounter with Roy provides him with yet more background on his father. It’s easy to recall both APOCALYPSE NOW (only with Tommy Lee Jones as Colonel Kurtz) and 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY given the isolation, questionable mental state, and mission-gone-wrong. The cinematography Hoyte Van Hoytema (DUNKIRK) is outstanding, and never allows us to forget Roy is in space … with danger present in every moment. The title translates “to the stars”, and it’s true in every sense.

Mr. Gray has delivered a thought-provoking big budget science fiction film. It has incredible special effects, but the personal story packs even more punch than the galactic adventure. Many will compare this to other space films like CONTACT, GRAVITY, and FIRST MAN, but this one requires more investment from the viewer, as it’s the character study that resonates. This is Brad Pitt’s movie (he’s in most every scene), and the ties to his father are never more evident than when he (and we) see The Nicholas Brothers performing in black and white on that monitor. If a daily psychological profile was required for each of us, it would be interesting to see how much work would actually be accomplished. Now, imagine yourself stationed in space and just try to keep your heartrate below 80!

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DUNKIRK (2017)

July 19, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Even for us frequent movie-goers, a truly great film is a rare and emotional experience. Leave it to Christopher Nolan, one of the finest film makers working today, to deliver a World War II masterpiece centered on a remarkable and historic evacuation, rather than one of the epic battles that more directly led to an Allied victory. The result is a spectacular, stunning and relentlessly intense assault on our eyes, ears and emotions … it’s a horrific thing of artistic beauty.

Mr. Nolan chooses a triptych approach to tell the May/June 1940 Dunkirk story from three distinctly different perspectives: The Mole, The Sea, and The Air. The Mole (term for protective sea walls) is the “by land” segment, and it shows nearly 400,000 soldiers lined up on the beach – nervously waiting to be either rescued or massacred. The Sea puts us not on the deck of the Navy destroyers, but rather alongside the citizen volunteers who answered the call to ferry men off the beach with own pleasure vessels. The Air plops us inside the Spitfire cockpits of two Royal Air Force pilots battling low fuel as they attempt to protect their fellow soldiers below. This 3-part film harmony expertly captures the disorientation of war by shuffling between the three segments, and varying the timelines and sequence of each.

This all happened pretty early in the war, as Winston Churchill had only become Prime Minister a few weeks prior. It should be noted that Mr. Nolan purposefully avoids the usual war room blustery (we see neither Churchill nor Hitler, and there is little mention of the infamous Halt Order) and allows the action to tell the story. Instead, his focus on the (very) young men being sent to battle makes a clear political statement on the absurdity of war. One of “The Sea” volunteers (an excellent Mark Rylance) delivers the message when he states it’s the old men running the war, so he can’t be expected to just sit back as young sons are sent to fight and die.

Despite the epic look, feel and sound of the film and the massive scale of the event, this film is surprisingly at its best in the small moments of heroism and the dogged determination of individuals to survive. Minimal dialogue allows the horrors of war to take center screen. Danger and death are at every turn – bombings, torpedoes, drowning, gunfire, and most any imaginable peril is ever-present. We witness PTSD (shell-shock) in the form of Cillian Murphy’s shivering rescued soldier, and are reminded that every young man present will be either dead or scarred for life. No one escapes war unscathed.

The opening sequence finds young Fionn Whitehead and his squad being targeted with gunfire as German leaflets fall from the sky. The leaflets are maps outlining the hopelessness as German forces have them surrounded. The film is meticulously researched and historically based, though the few characters we get to know are fictionalized accounts. The practical effects throughout are breath-taking and much of it was filmed on location at the Dunkirk beach. There will likely be some complaints regarding the scarcity of female characters and those of color, but the technical aspects of the film are beyond reproach – although the French might have preferred their military receive a bit more attention. Hans Zimmer’s score is unique and searing as it perfectly captures the intensity of the film. His use of a ticking watch only perpetuates the constant feeling of running out of time. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema and Editor Lee Smith prove why they are among the best at their profession.

Given the spectacle of the action (if possible, see it in IMAX or 70mm), it’s remarkable how we still manage to get to know some of the characters. From The Mole segment, Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard and Harry Styles represent the young soldiers, while Kenneth Branagh and James D’Arcy play officers. Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden are piloting the Spitfires, while Mark Rylance, Barry Keoghan, Tom Glynn-Carney, and Cillian Murphy are aboard the rescue yacht. Nolan regular and good luck charm Michael Caine can be recognized as the voice on Air Force radio. There is a 1958 film with the same title, and it stars John Mills and Richard Attenborough. The connection (other than the Dunkirk title) is Sir Attenborough’s grandson Will appears in this current film.

The horrors and impact of World War II continue to be an abundant garden – ripe for the picking when it comes to movies. Over the past 70 years there have been numerous approaches to telling part of the story that redefined the world: Judgment at Nuremberg (legal aftermath), Casablanca (romance), I Was a Male War Bride (comedy), Tora! Tora! Tora! and From Here to Eternity (Pearl Harbor), Shoah (documentary), Schindler’s List and Son of Saul (holocaust), Downfall (Hitler), The Great Escape (entertainment), Patton (bio), The Pianist (personal), Saving Private Ryan (Normandy), Das Boot (U-boat), The Thin Red Line (Guadalcanal), and Letter From Iwo Jima (two opposing perspectives). Each of these, and many others, have their place in War movie history, and now Christopher Nolan’s film belongs among the best.

watch the trailer: