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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MINARI (2021)

February 11, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. “The American Dream” could actually be labeled ‘The Human Dream’. The idea of being part of a loving and supportive family, while achieving a bit of societal success and living comfortably and safely in a home one can call their own, is a dream that bears no boundaries, gender, or skin color. This autobiographical film from writer-director Lee Isaac Chung is centered on his childhood recollections of his family move to rural Arkansas to start a farm.

It’s the 1980s and this Korean immigrant family has packed up to leave their dead-end California life to begin anew on a 50 acre parcel in Arkansas. Father Jacob (Steven Yeun, “The Walking Dead”) has a dream of cultivating Korean vegetables to fill the demand from an increasing Korean populace. Mother Monica (Yeri Han) sees less dream and more nightmare as they drive far from a city and pull up to a tattered mobile home (“it has wheels”). Their young son David (Alan S Kim) has health concerns from a closely monitored heart murmur, and is constantly being ordered to “don’t run, David!” David’s older sister Anne (Noel Cho) is mature and smart for her age, and acts as his life guide.

Monica and Jacob take jobs at a local hatchery to support the family while the farm is developed. The hatchery job is exactly what they escaped from in California, so Monica sees their situation as worse, not better … foreseeing failure on the farm. A heartfelt argument leads to compromise and Monica’s mother Soonja (Yuh-jung Youn) comes to live with them. As David notes, she’s not a “normal grandmother”. Rather than bake cookies, she freely spews profanity and quite enjoys the “water from mountains” (Mountain Dew) amidst her practical jokes at the expense of others. In other words, she’s a hoot!

Jacob accepts the offer of help from Paul (longtime favorite character actor Will Patton), a local evangelical Christian who praises Jesus frequently, and has an unusual Sunday ritual. The two men manage to cultivate the crops, yet run in to many obstacles along the way. But Chung’s film is clever in that the real core is family dynamics. Grandma’s planting of fast-growing minari herb in the creek bed acts as a metaphor for the plight of this family. Each member finds their way, and it’s clearly stronger as a unit than broken.

This is such a beautiful film with a gentle story grounded in realism. These people talk and act like a family, and the pressures they face are real. Racism in the south is never dwelled upon, but the struggles of a changing citizenry is faced by all. Emile Mosseri’s score is unusual, but fits perfectly, while Lachlan Milne’s cinematography at times reminds of Terrence Malick, possibly due to the setting. Filmmaker Chung has created a tender, relatable film and the cast performs superbly. The result will strike an emotional chord for many.

In theaters on February 12, 2021 and VOD on February 26, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER

 


SORRY TO BOTHER YOU (2018)

July 12, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. All movie watchers know that the first rule of Fight Club is ‘Don’t talk about Fight Club’. And now we know that the first rule of Telemarketing is STTS: Stick to the script. The similarities between the two movies may be few, but hip-hop artist (The Coup) turned first time filmmaker Boots Riley comes out swinging in this offbeat, quite clever satire on race, corporate culture, economic factions, social division, and politics. It makes for a nice companion piece to last year’s critical darling, GET OUT.

LaKeith Stanfield (GET OUT, SHORT TERM 12) stars as Cassius “Cash” Green, a low key good dude living with his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) in his uncle’s (Terry Crews) garage. Four months behind on rent, Cash wants to do something important with his life, he just doesn’t know how … and his current financial circumstances aren’t helping. You may call him a dreamer, but he’s not the only one (a Lennon reference seems fitting for this film).

Cash’s best buddy Salvador (Jermaine Fowler) gets him an interview at a dingy basement telemarketing firm – an interview that clues us in on the type of humor we are in for. Thanks to advice from one of the veteran telemarketers (Danny Glover), Cash utilizes his “white voice” and immediately has remarkable success … and we get some pretty funny sales call visuals to correspond to the obvious capitalism statement.

Ultimately his sales success gets him promoted to the “power caller” level and his own mentor, accessible only through the gold elevator. This leads to conflict with his friends, his girlfriend and his own moral standards. See, the basement dwellers are being led by Squeeze (Steven Yeun) in an effort to unionize for a living wage and tolerable work environment. As Cash continues to pursue … well, uh … cash … his friends carry out their form of civil disobedience. This leads to police brutality, examples of corporate greed, and the downside to individual ambition.

Armie Hammer plays Steve Lift, the egomaniacal corporate d-bag who takes Cash under his wing – for the purpose of making more money. The sales pitch turns to “Worry Free”, a lifestyle being marketed through brain-washing advertisements for guaranteed food and shelter. One need only commit to a lifetime of corporate servitude. If that sounds like slavery, well, that’s the point Riley is making. It’s not so far off from the life many of us lead today, but of course this is presented in satirical fashion, so we are manipulated into laughing at ourselves and our society. There is even a popular reality TV show titled “I Got the S**T Kicked Out of Me”, and folks can’t get enough!

The story kind of flies off the rails in the second half with some wacko-science fiction genetic engineering. The equisapiens have to be seen, as no written description will do. Even this segment has purpose. It speaks to how individuals and corporations can seize power and head in a questionable direction – all in the name of progress, efficiency and stock price.

Stanfield excels in one of his first lead roles, and Ms. Thompson is her usual shining star. Kate Berlant (as the humorously named Diana DeBauchery) has a couple of excellent scenes, and David Cross and Patton Oswalt are terrific as the (extremely) white voices of Cash and Mr. _________ (played by Omari Hardwick).

Filmmaker Riley offers up not a call to arms, but rather a call to wake up! Many of the decisions here mirror real life. Personal success can cost us friends, and political and professional choices may challenge our inherent morals (here, bordering on Faustian). The film is both provocative and funny, though a bit messy at times. You’ll laugh while you think, or laugh after you think, or think after you laugh … somehow you’ll do both. OFFICE SPACE and Terry Gilliam’s BRAZIL may be the closest comparisons; just be cautious if Boots Riley ever invites you to join in some horse play.

watch the trailer:


I ORIGINS (2014)

July 19, 2014

i origins Greetings again from the darkness. The evening I saw this one, I tweeted “Mike Cahill is one of today’s most intriguing filmmakers“. After a few days to think about it, that belief remains so. A double feature of this and his previous film Another Earth could keep the conversation flowing for days and weeks.

Evolution vs Spirituality is the main theme here. Miohael Pitt plays molecular biologist Ian Gray, who is working diligently to prove that the evolution of the eye is the scientific proof debunking creationism and spirituality. Ian’s petri dish view of life is challenged when he meets free-spirited Sofi (Astrid Berges-Frisbey). This takes “opposites attract” to a whole new level … in fact, opposites actually detract … from the story and tone. While Sofi causes cracks in Ian’s convictions, their ultimate split is actually a turning point for the film. The second half is extremely entertaining and thought-provoking.

Leaping ahead a few years, we find Ian married to his previous lab assistant Karen (a terrific Brit Marling). These two have an intriguing bond, and the birth of their first child sends the two scientists back into research mode … including some globe trotting. Retina scanning technology plays a huge role here, and leads Ian to India where he searches for proof of this new theory.

This existential trip has an inordinate number of coincidences, lucky breaks, and philosophical discussions … not to mention a rainbow range of eye glass styles for Pitt and Marling. If you enjoy films that generate post-viewing discussions, Mr. Cahil is proving himself as the go-to filmmaker. Whether you fall on the side of science or spirituality, or somewhere in-between, this film seeks to prove the eyes have it.

watch the trailer: