Three films into his career, writer/director Jordan Peele has established himself as a rare breed in Hollywood: a creative force with a distinctive voice who not only has big ideas but also has the budget to put them on the screen. But those who appreciated the cheeky brand of social commentary on race and class from Get Out and Us may be left scratching their heads after Nope, Peele’s attempt at a Western blockbuster. As evasive as the marketing for it has been, the ads pitched the film as a Spielbergian summer spectacle a la Jaws or Close Encounters but naturally, Peele also has other things on his mind too. The ideas he puts forth about the voyeuristic insatiability of the entertainment industry and man’s meddling with the laws of nature feel underdeveloped and more importantly, unrelated to the otherwise straightforward story.

Nope follows two siblings, Otis Jr. (Daniel Kaluuya) and Em (Keke Palmer), who run Haywood Hollywood Horses in the secluded desert town of Agua Dulce after their father Otis Sr. (Keith David) passed in a freak accident. Their business of training and handling horses for feature films has suffered since their father’s death, forcing them to sell some of their horses to child star-turned-tourist attraction owner Jupe (Steven Yeun). But flickering lights at their ranch may signal an end to their financial woes, as the Haywoods become convinced that an unidentified flying object is in their midst. Desperate to record its existence, they recruit tech store employee Angel (Brandon Perea) and enigmatic cinematographer Antlers (Michael Wincott) to capture its movements on film without being able to use electronics in its presence.

After opening with a one-two punch of tantalizing images in a blood-covered chimpanzee on a TV set and a passage from the Book of Nahum, Nope dutifully sets up the disparity in personalities between Otis Jr. and Em. This isn’t the first time Kaluuya has played the strong silent type but he’s usually able to put plenty of charisma into whatever role he portrays. Whether it’s in his acting choices or Peele’s direction of his performance, he comes across as off-puttingly sedate and almost obstinate in not letting us into his headspace. Palmer fares better as the more extraverted of the two, effortlessly winning a film crew over with a charming safety speech, but there’s not much on the page beyond that opening monologue to give her character dimension and depth.

Nope has no paucity of compelling story points, even if Peele doesn’t seem to know how they all fit together. The Haywoods being descendants of a jockey seen in the first motion picture dating back to the 1880s speaks to their firsthand knowledge of the power that images can hold and explains why they would fight so hard for UFO footage. The subplot about a sitcom filming that turned deadly when a trained chimp goes rogue calls to mind how often animals are still exploited for entertainment. The presence of a TMZ reporter, whose face is never shown, in the third act seems to comment on sensationalism in the internet age. Rich subtext, to be sure, but the text itself has to be captivating on its own terms first but it simply isn’t.

Fortunately, the film is at least always captivating to the eye, courtesy of one of the best DPs in the world, Hoyte van Hoytema, behind the camera. Scale is important both in Westerns and in movies about alien craft and Hoytema does a beautiful job organizing each frame with relative size in mind. The music from Michael Abels heavily recalls the scores of John Williams as majestic horns and quizzical strings percolate with wonderment below the sonic surface. Even though he has a Spielberg soundalike in the music department, Peele just doesn’t have the same knack for this Spielberg style of storytelling as he did with socially-conscious horror in his first two features. Spielberg is a master of being gracious with his audience, cluing them in to characters’s motivations without hitting us over the head with it, where Peele doesn’t seem to care whether or not we’re on the same page with our protagonists. I hope he finds a way to draw us back in his next time out.

Score – 2.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Coming to theaters is DC League of Super-Pets, an animated superhero film starring Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart following Superman’s dog Krypto and his other furry friends as they rescue kidnapped members of Justice League.
Also playing only in theaters is Vengeance, a mystery comedy starring B.J. Novak and Boyd Holbrook about a journalist and podcaster who travels from New York City to West Texas to investigate the death of a girl with whom he was romantically involved.
Streaming on Hulu is Not Okay, a dark comedy starring Zoey Deutch and Dylan O’Brien about a young woman who fakes a trip to Paris to gain followers online but a terrifying incident takes place and becomes part of her trip.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Where The Crawdads Sing

Based on the massively popular novel by the same name, the new period drama Where the Crawdads Sing tells the story of Kya Clark (Daisy Edgar-Jones), an underprivileged but resourceful young girl living in 1950s North Carolina. Abandoned first by her mother, then her siblings and finally by her abusive and alcoholic father, Kya learns to live on her own within their marsh-bound home. She meets fellow nature lover Tate (Taylor John Smith) while boating through the wetlands one day and a romance blooms between the two, until Tate unintentionally serves Kya with another round of abandonment when he leaves for college. She finds a rebound in the form of the football-playing Chase (Harris Dickinson), who commits to his relationship with Kya but also seems to be harboring secrets of his own.

The film’s framework is set around the discovery of Chase’s body under a fire tower by policemen in 1969 and the correlated trial a year later, in which Kya finds herself the lone murder suspect. Because the reclusive Kya is something of a local pariah, dubbed “The Marsh Girl” by unfeeling natives to the area, there aren’t many attorneys jumping at the opportunity to represent her in court. Once Kya is detained, the kindly lawyer Tom Milton (David Strathairn) ultimately steps up to her defense and during the trial, we’re shown extensive flashbacks that detail Kya’s time with Chase leading up to his death. With witnesses and evidence stacking up against her, Kya’s life is in Milton’s hands as he fights to defend her innocence.

Besides being touted as a book club pick by co-producer Reese Witherspoon, a big part of what made the best-seller that inspired Where the Crawdads Sing eclipse 12 million copies is its rich depictions of nature around the fictional town of Barkley Cove. Kya is drawn to ethology from a young age and her illustrations of the wildlife in the area eventually catch the eye of publishers looking to detail the Carolina swamplands. The film’s location work and sound design does a great job of adapting author Delia Owens’s descriptive prose to the frame, filling the aural and visual space with natural wonders for the endlessly curious Kya to document. In this context, every chirp and croak of this sonic landscape helps envelop us in her world even further.

Unfortunately, this intricate and evocative backdrop is squandered on a movie that unfolds like a Nicholas Sparks adaptation mixed with an overwrought courtroom drama. Director Olivia Newman bounces back and forth between the two timelines with too little attention being paid to the rhythm and tone of the narrative. But no matter when we are in the story, the events play like paperback pablum bogged down in romance and legal drama tropes. Even if we didn’t know from the start that Chase would end up dead, it’s obvious from his first interaction with Kya that they shouldn’t be together and that she has a deeper connection with Tate. It’s a strained love triangle wherein the movie indulges an obviously bad point of the triangle for too much of the running time.

With her presence in Hulu projects Fresh and Under the Banner of Heaven earlier this year, 24-year-old Daisy Edgar-Jones is clearly trying to get herself out there early in her burgeoning career. This is a tricky role because Kya is a very withdrawn person and in trying to stay true to the character, you run the risk as an actor of not emoting enough for the audience to connect with you. Although it’s not an unforgettable performance, Edgar-Jones does a fine job overall but the rest of the cast is generally unmemorable. Taylor John Smith and Harris Dickinson are handsome bores as the love interests and Strathairn is reliable as the tender litigator but it’s firmly within his expected wheelhouse. If you’re a devotee to the source material, Where the Crawdads Sing may float your boat but for someone like me who wasn’t wrapped up in the literary sensation, it was dead in the water.

Score – 2/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Coming to theaters is Nope, a science fiction movie starring Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer about a pair of ranch-owning siblings who attempt to capture video evidence of an unidentified flying object with the help of a tech salesman and a documentarian.
Premiering on Netflix is The Gray Man, an action thriller starring Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans about a CIA mercenary who is on the run from a merciless former colleague after accidentally uncovering dark agency secrets.
Streaming on Amazon Prime is Anything’s Possible, a coming-of-age romcom starring Eva Reign and Abubakr Ali about a high school student who summons up the courage to ask a transsexual teen out on a date.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Ep. #69 – Thor: Love and Thunder

I’m joined by my friends Jon and Stephanie as we hammer on about Thor: Love and Thunder, the newest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe now playing only in theaters. Then we discuss other things we’ve been watching at home, including the latest MCU series Ms. Marvel, whose first season will be streaming in its entirety on Wednesday, and the Adam Sandler-starring Netflix sports movie Hustle. Find us on FacebookTwitter and Letterboxd.

Thor: Love and Thunder

When it comes to the conception of Thor in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the jump in quality from where he started to where he is now could be described as super-heroic. His inaugural entry was a misguided attempt at Shakespearean tragedy that still ranks as my least favorite in the franchise, while the follow-up The Dark World was received so poorly that Kevin Feige and his team were forced to go back to the drawing board. Thor‘s second sequel Ragnarok brought on comedy director Taika Waititi to essentially reboot the superhero’s standalone movies, resulting in a god of thunder who was now much less stoic and much more jovial. Now we have Thor: Love and Thunder, another adventure that is mercifully in the same spirit of Ragnarok as opposed to the dreadfully self-serious first two films.

We’re re-introduced to Thor (Chris Hemsworth) as he travels across space with the Guardians of the Galaxy seeking to help those in need, who Thor finds in fellow Asgardian warrior Sif (Jaimie Alexander) on a ravaged planet. She tells Thor the one responsible for the carnage is Gorr (Christian Bale), a vengeful alien possessing a powerful god-killing weapon who seeks to put an end to all higher beings. Back on Earth, Thor’s old flame Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) is battling cancer but after traveling to New Asgard, she’s drawn to the remnants of Thor’s shattered hammer, which she is apparently now worthy to wield. With the now super-powered Foster, along with heroes Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and Korg (Taika Waititi), Thor must rescue a group of kidnapped New Asgardians while sidestepping Gorr’s pernicious traps along the way.

If Ragnarok swung the pendulum of the Thor movies firmly towards comedy from the stark drama of the first two, Love and Thunder finds Waititi trying and ultimately failing to find more of a balance in the middle. In past films like Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Jojo Rabbit, he’s proven his ability to mix laughs and pathos together but the tonal shifts here are much more wild and mismanaged by comparison. A tragic prelude introducing Gorr’s character opens with a shot that wouldn’t be out of place in a Terrence Malick project but five minutes later, an obese Thor is doing battle ropes with a trucker hat on. The pace of this film is similarly untamed; huge swaths of narrative process and character development seem to have been left on the cutting room floor in what seems to be an effort to get this latest entry under the two-hour mark.

Hats off, then, to Love and Thunder‘s cast, for not only being the glue that holds the story together in its haste but for also filling in the gaps that Waititi and co-writer Jennifer Kaytin Robinson should have already firmed up. It’s been 5 years since Ragnarok‘s release and almost 10 years since Portman starred in an MCU film but her charisma and chemistry with Hemsworth immediately makes up for lost time. Foster was a passive character with very little agency in her prior appearances but Portman has more room here to expand the role, even before she picks up the reforged Mjolnir to become Mighty Thor. On the villain side of things, Bale delivers a sturdy performance as a worthy antagonist who’s deliciously evil one moment and indubitably pitiable the next.

When it comes to laughs, Love and Thunder is eager to please, which might explain why this is filled with some of the broadest humor in the entire franchise. What will make or break this newest adventure for audiences is whether the jokes land or not. If you don’t think gags based on those screaming goat videos from years ago are funny, you’ll likely roll your eyes at a pair of new characters who join the gang this time around. Others may sigh at the inclusion of several very obvious Guns N’ Roses needle drops and savor more unexpected cuts from the likes of ABBA and Mary J. Blige. When in doubt, call on Hemsworth to tap into Thor’s bawdy enthusiasm and you’ll have chuckles more often than not. Thor: Love and Thunder is not an especially well-crafted superhero movie but it gets the job done while keeping Thor on a more promising path than when he started.

Score – 3/5

New movies coming to theaters this weekend:
Where the Crawdads Sing, a mystery drama starring Daisy Edgar-Jones and Taylor John Smith, is an adaptation of the best-selling novel about a woman who becomes a suspect in the murder of a man with whom she was once involved in the marshes of the deep South
Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank, an animated martial arts comedy starring Michael Cera and Samuel L. Jackson, follows a down-on-his-luck dog who is trained to be a samurai by a cat mentor, all while a villainous cat wants to destroy their village.
Mrs Harris Goes to Paris, a historical dramedy starring Lesley Manville and Isabelle Huppert, tells the story of a widowed cleaning lady living in 1950s London who becomes obsessed with a couture Dior dress and embarks on an adventure to Paris to track it down.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Black Phone

Ten years ago, writer/director Scott Derrickson and co-writer C. Robert Cargill teamed up with actor Ethan Hawke to make Sinister, a first-rate supernatural chiller about a true-crime writer who gets too close to the evil that inspires his work. Now the trio reunites for The Black Phone, another horror project that doesn’t quite have Sinister‘s supreme scares but proves that the chemistry established from that film was far from a fluke. Based on a short story of the same name from Joe Hill, whose father Stephen King has dabbled in horror fiction from time to time, the movie extrapolates from its conceit with unbearably tense setpieces and an evocative sense of setting.

The time and place is 1978 Denver, where teen siblings Finney (Mason Thames) and Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) endure family life with an abusive father (Jeremy Davies) while fending off bullies at school. To make matters worse, children have been disappearing all over the community with an abductor nicknamed The Grabber (Ethan Hawke) to blame for the disappearances. Finney tries to be careful but is nonetheless taken by The Grabber, waking up in a basement with little except a bare mattress and a disconnected landline. Hope seems lost, until the phone mysteriously rings early in Finney’s kidnapping, with one of The Grabber’s previous victims on the other line with instructions on how to get out alive.

Bleak but not without some well-earned moments of levity, The Black Phone fearlessly takes on difficult subject material that lesser horror movies might try to skirt around or avoid entirely. Derrickson sheds the rose-colored glasses that can be associated with this time period and reminds us early and often that life for kids back then could be downright brutal at times. The constant threat of a schoolyard pummeling is enough to make some of the boys overcompensate when it comes time to fight back; an early scene depicts a new kid whaling on a would-be bully far past a reasonable stopping point, just to make a statement. Tragically, this violence is often learned first at home and the broken families of abused or neglected children produce perfect victims for The Grabber.

Though it’s not a traditional tale of empowerment, the thesis of The Black Phone revolves around persevering through cruel circumstances and coming out the other end a stronger person. The premise of someone communicating with the dead and learning from their mistakes is a nice plot device for Finney to keep his head up during his abduction and simply work the problem. It’s not until the very end that it’s revealed how the bits of advice he gets from The Grabber’s abductees will help Finney escape but when each piece snaps together, it’s quite satisfying for both the protagonist and us in the audience. In the meantime, Hawke makes a meal of his immensely creepy killer character, sporting a two-piece mask that should be a hit when Halloween rolls around in a few months.

Some of the plot elements that don’t directly involve the game of wits between Finney and The Grabber aren’t quite as strong. The subplot surrounding Gwen’s psychic abilities that she inherited from her mother has some strong character moments but stretches credulity in the way that it affects the narrative. Put more frankly: I have trouble believing an entire police force would follow the visions of a teen girl as opposed to tracking down The Grabber with more concrete evidence. Elsewhere, it was nice to see Blumhouse regular James Ransone pop up but his character and his bearing on the plot make way less sense than the myriad supernatural events at play. Nevertheless, The Black Phone is a strong spookfest with compelling acting and a genuine sense of menace.

Score – 3.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Coming to theaters is Thor: Love and Thunder, a Marvel superhero movie starring Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman which finds the god of thunder re-teaming with Valkyrie and Korg to take on Gorr the God Butcher.
Streaming on Netflix is The Sea Beast, an animated adventure starring Karl Urban and Zaris-Angel Hator about a legendary sea monster hunter who has an epiphany when a stowaway girl befriends the most dangerous monster of all.
Also streaming on Netflix is Hello, Goodbye, and Everything In Between, a teen romance starring Talia Ryder and Jordan Fisher about a high school couple who go on one last epic date in both familiar and unexpected places after making a pact to break up before college.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup