Friday, July 22, 2022


Opening in theaters this weekend:

Nope--The terse title refers to the reaction that audiences often have when they're watching a horror movie, and the character is faced with investigating or confronting something scary: Nope. Nope, nope, nope. Onscreen, of course, the characters always do, and this movie is no exception.

The latest from Jordan Peele is set in Agua Dulce, a remote desert area north of L.A. (Vasquez Rocks, immortal location of countless films and TV shows including the "Arena" episode of Star Trek, is nearby). Peele's hero, once again played by Daniel Kaluuya of Get Out, is O.J., a horse wrangler for the movies who struggles to maintain the isolated ranch that's been in his family since the beginning of Hollywood. His actress/writer/singer/motorcyclist sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) works with him at times, though she can be as much an unreliable hindrance as a help.

Their father (Keith David) has recently died under weird circumstances, and gradually O.J. and Em become aware that their little corner of Agua Dulce is haunted by nothing less than a flying saucer. But while O.J.'s strong instinct is to say "nope" to exploring the matter further, Em's is to try to capture incontrovertible photographic or video evidence of the phenomenon, and she persuades her brother that it's the key to the ranch's solvency.

This basic synopsis does little justice to the richly imagined world in which Nope unfolds, however. Next door to the ranch, for instance, is "Jupiter's Claim," a western theme park run by Ricky (Steven Yeun), a former child actor and the veteran of a horrifying mishap on the set of a sitcom. O.J. has been selling off his horses to Ricky to stay afloat, but is hoping to buy them back.

Ricky's backstory is connected thematically to the main plot; Peele's persistent theme is the turbulent relationship between humans and other species, whether animal or alien. In formal terms, though, this strand is undeniably a digression. But, as with the digressions in, say, a Stephen King novel, I don't think the movie would work without it, or without Holst (Michael Wincott, growly as ever), the eccentric cameraman who agrees to help the siblings, or without Angel (Brandon Perea), the heartsick Fry's Electronics techie and UFO geek who worms his way into the project as well.

It also wouldn't work without Peele's careful, measured pacing. He teases us with a gradual accrual of creepy flourishes, even a pretty hair-raising red herring, so that when his extended big confrontation at the finale arrives, the thrills feel earned. And, like Get Out, the film is leavened with comedy--often macabre comedy--throughout.

With the help of Hoyte von Hoytema's sun-bleached pastel cinematography, Peele generates an atmosphere of preternatural Americana that inevitably recalls the work of the young Spielberg. Indeed, Nope is probably the best UFO movie since Close Encounters, though the sense of wonder is here tinged with the sinister and unwholesome.

A word should also be said for the leads. Palmer's Emerald is exuberant, exasperating and endearing. Kaluuya is strikingly laconic; his face slackening hilariously with dismay when he registers yet another setback, but remaining stoic. He spends a fair amount of his footage on horseback, and Peele showcases him like the star of a spaghetti western. In the middle of this sci-fi tale, the relatively short Kaluuya makes one of the more imposing and authoritative tall-in-the-saddle western heroes the movies have seen in quite a few years.

Monday, July 18, 2022


The July/August issue of Phoenix Magazine, now on the stands...

...features the 2022 "Best of the Valley" selections. Your Humble Narrator is proud to have been one of the authors. Try to guess which ones I wrote!

Friday, July 15, 2022


In theaters this weekend, a couple of compelling documentaries:

Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song--Arguably the most beautiful popular song of the 20th Century in English, both lyrically and melodically, Leonard Cohen's signature work has proven itself as a standard. It's a testament to its power that, even though we hear more than ten different artists performing it in this absorbing documentary, it doesn't get old.

Released to little initial notice on Cohen's 1984 album Various Positions, it gradually gained ears as it was performed by Bob Dylan, John Cale, Jeff Buckley, Myles Kennedy, Bono, Brandi Carlile, Eric Church, Alexandra Burke and others. The use of Cale's version on the soundtrack of Shrek in 2001, and the inclusion of Rufus Wainwright's exquisite cover on that movie's soundtrack was a tipping point for the song as a spiritual anthem for our time; k. d. lang magnificently eulogized Cohen with it in 2017, and at our national nadir after the election of the 45th president, Kate McKinnon, nominally in the guise of a defeated Hillary Clinton, salved us with it in 2016 on Saturday Night Live.

Perhaps wishing to avoid infecting the song with topical politics, this movie, directed by Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller, excludes that wretched, moving moment. It includes biographical material on Cohen, but as it progresses it focuses increasingly on the life which the song itself took on. Aside from its endless interpreters, Cohen himself never really stopped writing it; one of the talking heads claims that he filled notebook after notebook with about 180 verses.

Gabby Giffords Won't Back Down--Music is also central to this documentary, directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, about the former Congresswoman from Arizona's 8th District. Shot by a deranged gunman outside a supermarket in Tucson in 2011, at a massacre in which six people were killed, Giffords, the main target of the attack, received a critical brain injury resulting in aphasia, greatly inhibiting her speech.

But she could still sing, and that was one of the ways by which therapists helped her on her slow, exhausting road to reclaim her ability to communicate. Tunes from "And She Was" by Talking Heads to Tom Petty's "Won't Back Down" to "Que Sera, Sera" to Bowie's "Space Oddity"--in reference, of course, to her husband, former astronaut and current U.S. Senator Mark Kelly--are used on the soundtrack to move the narrative forward, both to poignant and lighthearted effect. But more importantly, there's a sense of exhilaration and liberation when Giffords, who strains to find the simplest spoken words, cuts loose freely in song.

The movie packs an infuriating punch, because it shows how much vibrancy and radiant ease Giffords lost to her injury. She's one of the countless casualties of this country's gun insanity that should each, in and of themselves, have been enough to spur reform. But it's also inspiring to see how little, in the face of what she's suffered, she seems to have lost to bitterness and rage, and how much of her spirit and fierce charisma she's won back.

On VOD this week:

Glasshouse--The world has been ravaged by a plague which leaves people without memory, even of their own names. The members of a family--severe mother (Adrienne Pearce), three beautiful daughters (Jessica Alexander, Anja Taljaard and Kitty Harris) and an afflicted son (Brent Vermuelen)--hunker down inside a huge, palatial greenhouse and practice quasi-religious rituals about memory. They venture outside in rather Victorian-looking breathing apparatus, and pick off any approaching strangers with sniper rifles. Then one day the alluring eldest daughter brings a hunky injured man (Hilton Pelser) in, finds he is not a "forgetter" and, as you can imagine, trouble ensues.

The twists get more twisty, and more unsavory, as the story progresses. Directed by Kelsey Egan in and around a South African conservatory building--the script was written, by Egan and Emma Lungiswa de Wet, with this location in mind--the film is deliberate, but it has an atmosphere of unhealthy eroticism that recalls Don Siegel's 1971 period drama The Beguiled. It's the most interesting post-apocalyptic yarn in quite a while.

At the Laemmle in L.A., and on demand:

Fair Game--The heroine of this Australian actioner of 1986 is Jessica (Cassandra Delaney), a Julie-Christie-esque beauty with big '80s hair who runs a wildlife refuge in the outback and lives on it in an isolated cabin. The villains are a trio of kangaroo poachers who terrorize and assault her and trash her home.

Most of us wouldn't need to hear more than "kangaroo poachers" to want to see these guys pulverized, but the gleeful performances of Peter Ford, David Sandford and Barry Sparks manage to elevate our bloodlust even further. Enjoying a re-release from Dark Star, this "Ozploitation" melodrama, reportedly and believably a favorite of Quentin Tarantino and an inspiration for Death Proof, is bluntly directed by Mario Andreacchio. It's shot with richness and nuance by Andrew Lesnie, and packed with that maniacal stunt work characteristic of Australian action flicks of that period. Despite what she endures, our heroine remains defiantly brave throughout, and it would be absurd to deny how satisfying it is when she turns the tables on her tormentors.

Except that for me, as usual with revenge's not quite sufficient. Death, even painful death, wasn't enough for my spiteful heart; I wanted these guys to suffer more humiliation and degradation at Jessica's hands. But Fair Game comes closer to a gratifying payback than most.

Friday, July 8, 2022


Opening this weekend:

Marcel the Shell With Shoes On--The title character is a teeny-tiny, rather generic-looking seashell with a single googly eye in his aperture and a tiny pair of shoes attached to his underside. He lives in a sunny AirBnB with his "Nan," a slightly larger shell named Connie, and the two of them devise ingenious ways to eke out a subsistence.

Once they were part of a larger community of other anthropomorphic random tidbits--other shells, cheese curls, Chex mix, pencil stubs. But lately they've been on their own, and supportive as Connie is, Marcel feels the loss of society keenly. Even Marcel's pet--a miniscule bit of lint named Alan that he leads around on a leash--doesn't make up for it.

The conceit is that we're seeing a documentary in which the director, Dean Fleischer-Camp, interviews and bonds with Marcel, and eventually helps him try to find the old gang, a process which involves Marcel and Connie's favorite TV star, Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes. Marcel's piping, guileless yet keenly perceptive voice is provided by Jenny Slate, and Isabella Rossellini voices the firmly loving Connie.

Somewhere, I suppose, there's a critic working up a venomous pan of this animated feature, based on the viral 2010 online short and its sequels. But I'm not that critic. The movie has a paradisal atmosphere and is very, very funny, with sprightly timing of its visual gags and surprising verbal interplay, much of it probably improvised, between Slate and Fleischer-Camp (formerly Slate's significant other in real life). Yet from the start there's a hint of bittersweet melancholy to it as well, underscored by passages from Philip Larkin to "Peaceful, Easy Feeling."

Thor: Love and Thunder--Embodied once again by the jovial Chris Hemsworth, Marvel's version of the Norse deity must make a big personal adjustment in this latest adventure. The thunder god's beloved hammer Mjolnir, which formerly only he could wield, is now responding to his ex-girlfriend Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). Thor is now in a relationship with a perfectly nice battle axe, Stormbreaker, but he can't forget his old hammer, and the sight of his ex effortlessly swinging it takes some getting used to.

Thor and Jane, along with their pals Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and rock man Korg (director/co-writer Taika Waititi), must here work together to rescue a group of children abducted from New Asgard, a rather bougie beach town and tourist destination, into dark dimensions. The kidnapper is Gorr the God-Butcher (Christian Bale), a rasping, chalky-skinned, spectral figure whose religious disillusionment early on has led to his desire to, you know, butcher all the gods. Thor's appeal to Zeus (Russell Crowe) for help reveals a distinct lack of cross-cultural amity in the Olympian, who comes across like a tacky billionaire showman of the new school.

As in 2017's delightful Thor: Ragnarok, Waititi plays this material for goofy laughs; there are cosmic gags here worthy of Melies. It's very silly, but unlike Ragnarok, it isn't only silliness. Bale's Gorr is genuinely creepy, and the scenes in which the characters are faced with loss and love are emotionally substantive. Love and Thunder has an airbrushed-van rock-n-roll sensibility that Waititi doesn't mock; borderline-campy as the movie is, its use of "Sweet Child of Mine" can bring a tear to the eye.