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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LIGHTYEAR (2022)

June 16, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. At the beginning of the film we are informed that this is a movie about the story that made Andy want a Buzz Lightyear action figure in the first TOY STORY (1995). It’s fair to ask – is this a spin-off, a prequel, or an origin story? The answer is a dash of all the above, yet also not exactly any of those. As with all Pixar features, the pedigree is beyond reproach. Writer-director Angus MacLane was the co-director on FINDING DORY (2016), while his co-writer here was Jason Headley (ONWARD, 2020), and the story was developed by Matthew Aldrich (COCO, 2017).

Following the murkiness of the prologue … he looks like Buzz and acts like Buzz, but that’s Chris Evans (CAPTAIN AMERICA), not the familiar voice of Tim Allen, as Buzz Lightyear filing his Mission Log to Star Command. We adjust quickly enough, although it is a bit jarring at first. Buzz is headstrong and not always the best at following orders. It’s that mentality and an error in judgment that results in those on the mission becoming stranded on a distant planet. Time and space theories are likely to baffle the younger viewers, as the various test flights Buzz takes finds him basically maintaining his current age, while those from the original mission age and ultimately die. This includes his mentor and friend Commander Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba), whom, with each of his return flights, Buzz watches her age, marry a woman, have kids, and get sick. Again, it’s kind of jarring, but Pixar has never shied away from life’s tough moments, and that don’t do so here.

It’s on his return from one unexplained extra-long flight when Buzz encounters Izzy Hawthorne (Keke Palmer), granddaughter of Alisha. Izzy is trying to follow in her grandmother’s Space Ranger footsteps, and with her rag-tag band of misfits, Mo (Taika Waititi) and Darby Steele (Dale Soules), they help Buzz avoid his first encounter with the evil Emperor Zurg (James Brolin). Completing this new group is SOX (Peter Sohn), the robot cat previously issued to Buzz for emotional comfort. SOX is the latest in a long line of scene-stealing Disney fur-baby sidekicks, even if SOX happens to be mechanical. SOX is also the best thing about the film, other than the spectacular visuals and the late-in-the-story appearance of Commander Burnside, whose instantly recognizable voice belongs to Isiah Whitlock Jr (and no, the colorful word Mr. Whitlock has made his own in so many roles does not appear here, to no one’s surprise).

No voice by John Ratzenberger (at least that I heard) and no Pizza Planet (at least that I spotted), but more importantly, the film simply lacks the charm and story-telling brilliance that Pixar has spoiled us with over the years. We never really connect with the characters, even Buzz, who seems quite aloof. Michael Giacchino does serve up another terrific score on the heels of his work on THE BATMAN and JURASSIC PARK DOMINION, and the visual effects really are top notch. Pixar films consistently deliver a message and here it seems to be that collaboration and friendship create strength in numbers. LIGHTYEAR doesn’t go to infinity and beyond, but even the lesser Pixar projects have something to offer.

***NOTE: TOY STORY is one of my all-time favorite movies

Opens in theaters on June 17, 2022

WATCH THE TRAILER