Nope

24 Jul

‘Nope’: A hell of a weird ride on the horse ranch

By Tom Meek, Friday, July 22, 2022

Jordan Peele’s third horror installment would make a good double bill with Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” (2019), as both take place in dusty Western shanty towns north of L.A. with ties to the film industry. Good portions of Tarantino’s “Once,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio as a 1950s western TV actor whose glory days are behind him, are situated in a Hollywood stage strip town and the Spahn Ranch where followers of Charles Manson have set up camp. In Peele’s “Nope” – the terse title a take on audiences reaction to horror films when a potential victim does something unwise – nearly all the action takes place at the Haywood’s Hollywood Horses ranch and neighboring Wild West theme park, Jupiter’s Claim.

Peele is one to settle into the everyday and root audiences so deeply in his characters that when things go bump in the night, it takes a little while to catch onto the oddities. The same is true here; the atmospheric buildup is masterful. Though I hate to say it, I’m not sure the payoff is as worthy as his first two efforts, “Get Out” (2017) and “Us” (2019). We catch up with Pa Haywood (David Keith, in it far too little) and his son OJ (Daniel Kaluuya, working with Peele again after “Get Out”) moseying around their vast, barren ranch when what seems like bullets start to pepper the area around them. Is there a sniper in the hills? Nope, just a freak aviation mishap that takes Pa’s life – or so that’s what the authorities say happened. Strapped for cash and unable to keep the biz clicking like Pa, OJ sells some of his horses to that Wild West show run by former child TV star Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun, “Minari”). One night OJ and his fiery kid sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) witness cultlike gatherings at Jupiter’s Claim and freaky stuff starts to happen. The electricity goes out, horses go wild, there’s an upward vortex scouring the valley, and something dark and big streaks through the sky.

Sensing something otherworldly and wanting cash, Emerald and OJ decide to capture the phenomenon on film so they can score their “Oprah moment.” Part of the plan leads them to Best Buy knockoff where they reluctantly enlist the resident Geek Squad dude named Angel Torres (a bleach-blond-streaked Brandon Perea) to set up security cams to capture the phenom. Angel’s a bit of a UFO nerd to boot, and looking at early footage notices a cloud that hasn’t moved in days, hmmmm. When the entity dampens electricity by battery or otherwise, the trio turn to veteran Hollywood cinematographer Antlers Holst (character actor Michael Wincott, whose gravelly voice is an attraction in its own right) and his old-school, crank-operated cam.

The rise to the crest is slow and steady, and a great character study with some super neat backstories, but once we get to the what and why of the goings-on at Jupiter’s Claim, “Nope” shifts gears and becomes something akin to a Spielberg alien encounter flick – “War of the Worlds” (2005) or “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977). Some of the bait and switch in trying to ferret out the entity also has some of the seagoing fun of “Jaws” (1975), with players at different posts reacting to unfolding events differently, though given the dusty, spare terrain it reminds me more of the quirky 1990s cult hit “Tremors.”

Some of the basic rules about encountering the visitor don’t always hold true; OJ learns that if you avoid eye contact and look down, you’re in a safe place. It works for him, but not so much for others. The film’s told in chapters, mostly with names of animals the Haywoods train or the TV-family-adopted chimp Gordy, from one of the hit shows Jupe was part of as a boy. It’s a dark, alluring chapter that has little to do with what’s going on in the present, but a phenomenal – and let me add, grim – segment, worthy perhaps of a bigger piece on its own. Then there’s the Haywoods’ history: The first moving picture shot by Eadweard Muybridge, a clip called “The Horse in Motion” from 1878, featured a black jockey riding a lithe, muscular stallion, which Emerald proudly tells prospective employers was their great, great-grandad.

As far as sociopolitical commentary goes, there’s nothing as prominent here as in “Get Out.” Perhaps a comment about territoriality and land rights, or inciting an entity that holds lethal authority? More so “Nope” is a solid summer pleaser, a sci-fi thriller with some very deep characters, incredible performances – the laconic Kaluuya does so much with those eyes, and Palmer is just a firecracker in every scene – and a thinking person’s pacing. It isn’t perfect, but it powers through with an ensemble performance that’s near unbeatable. 

The Gray Man

21 Jul

‘The Gray Man’: Netflix spends to set spy vs. spy, but the stakes have never been lower for watchers

By Tom Meek Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Beyond “Squid Games,” Netflix just can’t buy a hit. “Red Notice” (2021), the spy comedy starring Ryan Reynolds, Dwayne Johnson and “Wonder Woman” herself, Gal Gadot, had an A-list cast and big budget ($160 million) but a tepid script about a thingamajig of no consequence. “The Gray Man,” ambitious and eye-grabbing on paper, is sadly more of that, with a bigger budget ($200 million) and more star power – this time helmed by the Russo brothers, Anthony and Joe, who rocked the box office with two “Captain America” installments as well as Avenger closeouts “Infinity War” (2018) and “Endgame” (2019).

Based on Mark Greaney’s bestselling 2009 espionage novel, the setup has a man known as just Six (Ryan Gosling) let loose from prison to serve the CIA as a “gray man” operative doing the dirty work for higher-ups. His mentor and main handler, Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton, lost in the mayhem), puts him to work as an assassin, and at one point as a house guard to look after his cardiac-afflicted niece (Julia Butters, who reduced Leonardo DiCaprio’s fading cowboy TV star to tears in “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood”). Flash forward a few years (the film hops around some in time, to little effect) and Six is tasked by a suave new handler (Regé-Jean Page) with assassinating a target and retrieving a data chip. At the last moment he has a crisis of conscience and himself becomes a target of the agency, with a relentless private contractor by the TV soap drama name of Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans, with a deadly, dastardly mustache that steals every scene) on his tail. What ensues is two alpha males circling and parrying each other at far-flung points around the globe (Vienna, Berlin and Bangkok among the many locales) with that chip and vulnerable niece as stakes. In the mix is an underutilized Ana de Armas, who strutted her spy thriller stuff more engagingly in that last Bond flick, “No Time to Die” (2021), and paired with Gosling in “Blade Runner 2049” (2017), as a sympathetic fellow CIA agent dragged into the not-so-cloaked and explosive-dagger conflicts erupting in crowded European squares. 

The action sequences are fairly well done, but they also feel done before. “Gray Man” is more in the ilk of Jason Bourne than a Bond flick, due partly to Gosling’s cool, laconic presence and the fact that he’s similarly on the run from the agency that indoctrinated him. That quietness worked well in Nicolas Winding Refn’s day-glo neo-noir “Drive” (2011) and even “Blade Runner 2049”; here there’s just wisps about who Six is and was, and because the film’s all action and espionage mumbo-jumbo, Six comes off hollow and vacuous and would be nearly unsympathetic if it weren’t for the halo hoisted about his head when rescuing that imperiled girl time and time again. Evans gets an arch-Bond-villain part tossed his way and bites in deep, with shark-frenzy glee. The performance almost saves the film – but then again, who is this guy other than an overeducated linguist with a cheesy, sub-mullet haircut and a ’stache, jabbering about the definition of SAT words such as “preternatural” before pulling out his blade and getting down to business? The parts and the production values are in place, but without a well-devised thread or emotional soul binding them, that makes for a dull and drab affair.

Where the Crawdads Sing

16 Jul

Where the Crawdads Sing’: Accused of a murder in a tale as sodden as the marshes in which it’s set

Delia Owens’ bestselling novel, “Where the Crawdads Sing,” gets spun into a feature film by Olivia Newman (Paul’s daughter, whose directing has been mostly on TV such as “Chicago Fire”) from a script by Lucy Alibar (whose only other major credit is the stage play that inspired the 2012 indie dystopian hit “Beasts of the Southern Wild”). The result’s highly watchable, even if it feels like Southern-fried Nick Sparks pablum. The drive is the mysterious death of a coastal Carolina town’s golden boy, Chase Andrews (British actor Harris Dickinson, “The King’s Man”) who fell from an observation tower in the middle of a marsh far from any eye, where only the crawdads and marsh rats venture. There’s no tracks at the site, coming or going, and a trapdoor in the tower is left unlocked and open. Foul play is assumed. Kya Clark (Daisy Edgar Jones, “Normal Life”), known around town as “Marsh Girl” because she lives alone in a hut in the swampy remotes, becomes the primary suspect not only because she’s strange and othered, but because she was the covert lover of said it guy.

Natch, we get a backup and rewind to Kya growing up in that shanty with a father (Garret Dillahunt, surprisingly compelling in a one-note part) who’s perpetually boozed up and beating his wife and brood. Over the years, all but Kya leave and one day Pa just ups and goes too, leaving 6-year-old Kya (Jojo Regina) to fend for herself. Hard to believe Ma (Ahna O’Reilly) would walk out on at-risk kids, or that the older sibs would too, but sure enough Kya learns how to cope with the monster and after he’s gone gets looked after by an effusively compassionate and gentle African American couple (Michael Hyatt and Sterling Macer Jr., likable in egregiously stereotypical depictions) who run the dockside general store down the meander. Little Kya evades most adults and makes her way around in a ratty Boston Whaler. Later, as a young woman, she’s roundly shunned as an untamed creature of the reeds, yet young men such as Chase and Tate (Taylor John Smith) take to her enigmatic, feral charms – though neither will be seen with her in public. Once that’s all square, the film settles into a “To Kill as Mockingbird”-like trial with David Strathairn (“Nomadland”) playing the part of Atticus Finch as Kya’s solemn yet gentlemanly defender in Tom Wolfe attire. 

The ebb and flow of the courtroom proceedings intrigue for a while, but as holes are filled in with more flashbacks, plausibility starts to go out the window. Don’t get me wrong, Strathairn and Jones put in solid turns; it’s just that their subtly strong, inward performances deserve material that is interested in those efforts, not this forced heartstring-tugging and these strained plot twists. The project has strong allies in Reese Witherspoon, who embraced Owens’ book and serves as a producer, and pop star Taylor Swift, who provides the film’s apt theme song, “Carolina.” The real eye-grabber is the fact that Owens’ novel was her first fiction at the age of nearly 70 – and that her stepson and husband are implicated in an unsolved murder of curious circumstance that took place in Africa nearly a decade ago. Inspiration? If you’re up on the deets, the film’s final frames take on an eerily different tone than what’s on screen.

Hit the Road

26 Jun

‘Hit the Road’: Steering into something big

Iranian filmmaker Panah Panahi’s debut is right in line with the films of his father, Jafar, whose great dissident-leaning works include “The Circle” (2000), “Offside” (2006) and “The White Balloon” (1995), all in their own way measured jabs at Iran’s theocratic oppression of women. The Iranian government has the ability to review scripts and the work of films in progress and squash them along the way, or ban them, if they feel the final cut demeans or could trigger any kind of political action against the establishment. “The Circle,” about a group of women in jail for what we would consider jaywalking, was banned in Iran yet played arthouse venues everywhere else. Jafar Panahi was placed under house arrest in 2010 and prohibited from making films for 20 years, yet in 2011 we got “This Is Not a Film,” shot mostly on an iPhone from his apartment in Tehran. The document of his imprisonment starring a lethargic iguana was allegedly smuggled out of the country on a flash drive inside a cake.

Panah Panahi too cooks up something politically barbed in “Hit the Road,” though it takes a while to get where “Hit the Road” is heading. We begin with a semi-joyous car ride across relatively barren terrain where a not-quite-nuclear family partakes in raucous car karaoke. In the back seat, dad (Hasan Majuni) has a broken leg. Back there with him is his highly animated, highly mercurial 5-year-old son (Rayan Sarlak), with the older brother (Amin Simiar) up front clutching the wheel of the lux SUV and looking dour despite the seemingly festive mood. Mom (Pantea Panahiha) is up front too, perched in the passenger seat, trying to hold order as much as she can when younger brother flies off into one of his many impish snits.

We never get names, and in addition to the older brother’s defeated look there are small cracks of something bigger going on – that broken leg, a random SIM card, a sick dog in the way, way back and the revelation that the SUV was borrowed in desperate haste. Clearly this is not a fun-seeking family excursion or a bonding getaway to some desired destination, but a mission, if not a fleeing. To say more would be to ruin the mesmerizing enigma of a poignant and provocative existential odyssey that would make a great double bill with Kelly Reichardt’s “Meek’s Cutoff” (2010; and yes, the name refers to an ancestor of mine).

The cinematic renderings of the wind-sculpted landscape by Amin Jafari, who worked with Jafar Panahi on “3 Faces” in 2018, stun. The key to the film’s triumph, however, is the soulful performances by the all-in cast. Majuni casts his compassionate patriarch as a wounded old lion, while Panahiha conveys much with an angular face that has the same kind of ageless grace that has come to define Catherine Deneuve – and boy, can she bounce and hop when the music moves her. And of course the young Sarlak, whose mood swings from hellacious terror to teeming bundle of joy, buoys and underscores the dichotomy of bigger, bittersweet what’s-going-on. With his raw innocence, he doesn’t seem to be in on the what-and-the-why of their hie; he lives in the moment and, for the most, is the only one in the family focused on that dog in the back.

The Black Phone

24 Jun

The Black Phone’: Its ’70s retro trappings aside, supernatural-tinged thriller might not grab you

By Tom Meek Thursday, June 23, 2022

“The Black Phone” is a neat dial-back to the indelible sound and style of the 1970s, but as a quirky bit of horror it’s all posture without much bite. Director Scott Derrickson, who helmed Marvel’s “Doctor Strange” (2016) and exited this year’s “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” during pre-production, adapted a short story by Joe Hill (son of horror-meister Stephen King) as a straight-ahead BTK creepshow with co-writer C. Robert Cargill. There’s few red herrings or inventive twists, and very little character development. The film’s shining asset, aside from the allure of the era and devil mask worn by the central boogeyman, is the strong performances by its young cast members, namely Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw as an imperiled brother and sister.

We embed with Finney (Thames) in late-1970s Denver, where several kids have gone missing, black balloons left each time as the perp’s signature. Gwen (McGraw) has visions of the kidnappings and post-abduction torture, but parents and friends at school move around as if there’s no peril on the streets. Finney’s more concerned about the bullies who often corner him at school, but he’s got king ruffian Robin (Miguel Cazarez Mora) watching out for him, because Finney’s good at math and helps Robin with schoolwork – until he’s “grabbed,” as the John Wayne Gacy of Denver is a devil-masked magician known as The Grabber, played by a hardly recognizable Ethan Hawke (“First Reformed,” “Boyhood”). Finney awakes in a “Saw”-like basement dungeon where there’s nothing but a mattress and the disconnected device of the title hanging alone on a scummy wall. The Grabber pops in every now and then to menace Finney, and the phone begins to ring. On the other end are previous victims, who also appear as bloody apparitions to give Finney clues and hints as how to survive The Grabber’s games, and possibly escape. Some of the advice is odd: to break into the back of a freezer that’s locked on the other side, or stuff the phone receiver with dirt to give it “heft” as a weapon. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to see an old rotary phone in action again; but do 6 ounces of soil add lethal mass?

More perplexing is The Grabber’s brother, Max (James Ransone), who is unaware of his sibling’s misdeeds but for some reason has launched an amateur investigation into the disappearances and who The Grabber might be. Then there’s Finney and Gwen’s dad (Jeremey Davies, “Spanking the Monkey”), an odd olio of inconsistent parts. Initially he lands as alcoholic trailer trash trying to beat the visions out of Gwen (ma had the gift too, and it led to her death) in the name of Jesus, but later assumes the mantle of concerned, caring father. It doesn’t click, and I’m not sure Davies or Derrickson ever really had a sense as to how to play it. The Grabber too – the whys and whats never get meted out. It’s a huge hole that makes the film almost pointless. The saving grace is the chemistry between Thames and McGraw as siblings struggling with the loss of their mother and their father’s addiction and intermittent cruelties. Much is asked of Thames, and he delivers. Comparisons to “Stranger Things” are expected considering the adolescent focus, eerie dangers lurking just beyond eyeshot and that hip, retro throwback to an era of fond (or not so fond) notoriety. It’s fair, but know that Hill’s short take was woven a decade before the hit Netflix series began streaming.

Lightyear

17 Jun

‘Lightyear’: A buzzkill for the ‘Toy Story’ series

By Tom Meek, Thursday, June 16, 2022

You’re bound to be thrown off a bit by “Lightyear,” the latest Pixar offering, which in theory extends the “Toy Story” franchise. No, Tim Allen is not in the mix as the titular Buzz, and Buzz here doesn’t look so much like Andy’s old space ranger toy. Nope, this Buzz is more square-jawed and all-American, kinda Captain America-ish, which makes good sense as Buzz is voiced by Cap portrayer Chris Evans. “What the what?” you might ask. Simply put, “Lightyear” is an origin story; in the “Toy Story” films that talking toy (“To infinity and beyond!”) was the merchandised byproduct of a hit movie called “Lightyear” – this is that movie.

Our trajectory finds Buzz and and fellow space ranger Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) piloting a giant space orb – which looks exactly like the landing ship in “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) – on some exploratory deep space mission. Also not far off from “2001,” the crew of 1,000 scientists is in sleep stasis when Buzz and Hawthorne decide to land on a planet for much-needed resources. Turns out the Earth-like terra firma isn’t so friendly, as relentless tentacled vines pop up everywhere and a teeming swarm of nasty giant mosquitos come at the landing party. After enduring much hectoring, Buzz and Hawthorne make the smart decision to get the heck out. But when they blast off, Buzz tries a risky maneuver and damages the hyperdrive, for the most part stranding the crew on the planet. What to do? Build a new hyperdrive, test it on a smaller, X-wing-like ship and get on with the mission. (Space rangers always finish the mission.) Easier said than done. Test flight after test flight fails, and because of hyper speed, each time Buzz returns, Hawthorne and the now-walled-in village of scientists have aged four or more years, though Buzz is the same as when he left. From there on, it’s wash, rinse, repeat. Hawthorne’s progression is fun to watch as she marries and has a child, which brings a granddaughter (Keke Palmer). There’s also some killer robots who show up to assail the explorers’ forcefield-fortified dome, as well as a rip in the multiverse – is it me, or are we awash in alternate realities these days?

Overall it feels a stretch to categorize “Lightyear” as a “Toy Story” entry. The connection’s tangential and the film’s far too plot driven, leaving it not all that emotionally deep. My 12-year-old daughter, who has moved on from “Harry Potter” and “Star Wars” to “Avatar” but always comes back to the “Toy Story” films with deep affection, commented that the animated backstory felt too much like a “Star Wars” chapter. What she was getting at (with few exceptions, like that deft aging twist) is that you can see where this space quest is going from infinity and beyond. 

Jurassic World Dominion

10 Jun

‘Jurassic World Dominion’: Ending on overdrive for a series makers could have just left in ‘Park’

By Tom Meek Friday, June 10, 2022

The “Jurassic Park” films all possessed that classic Spielberg wonderment propelled and embossed by a trumpeting John Williams score, and the 2015 “Jurassic World” reboot by Colin Trevorrow, who made the small indie feature “Safety Not Guaranteed” (2012), had some decent rootings to it. The latest dino theme park installment, “Jurassic World Dominion” (also directed by Trevorrow), tries to do too much with too little. It’s not so much that it’s too long – okay, at two and a half hours, it is – but that it tries to blend the two franchises (“Park” and “World” now each having three chapters) and weave them into an unnecessarily complex plot that has world-hopping aspirations as well as deep-creviced conspiracies. It borrows too much from other films without digging new dirt; we get cool new CGI dinos to gawk at, but little else.

The franchise crossover seems to be a thing these days. Last year’s “Spider-Man: No Way Home” not only dragged in a potpourri of MCU denizens but also the previous two incarnations of Spider-Man (Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire popping up alongside reigning Spidey Tom Holland) due to a Doctor Strange-triggered multiverse. Here it’s not that complicated or far-fetched – at first. The world is now shared with dinosaurs, which were taken off the Costa Rican island in the previous “World” movie, “Fallen Kingdom” and got loose. If you’re trawling for crab in Alaska, you might bring up a mosasaur that will flip your ship and take your catch; if you’re in the high Sierras, be careful walking about, because there’s velociraptors in the woods. Every now and then a human gets gobbled, there’s an exotic dino market in the bowels of the Maltese capital of Valletta (feeling a lot like the bar scene from “Star Wars”) and a concerted global effort to relocate dinos to sanctuary reserves. More menacing are the 3-foot locusts with cretaceous DNA that eat up nearly every farm crop not sowed with Biosyn Corp.-engineered seeds. Yup, avarice, god complexes and long, dubious corporate agendas play big, as do spy games and old flames.

Raptor wrangler Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and his betrothed, the former Costa Rican park manager Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) live in those Sierra with Maisie Lockwood (Isabella Sermon), who at the end of “Fallen Kingdom” was revealed to be the first human clone. Also in those woods is ol’ raptor Blue, which Owen raised at the theme park. Blue has reproduced without mating, and her offspring and Maisie are wanted by Biosyn for their DNA. Meanwhile, Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), last seen in 2001’s “Jurassic World III,” gets dragged in to look at the locust problem and enlists the help of paleontologist Alan Grant (Sam Neill), her former flame. (She got married and had kids, he didn’t.) Chaos theory mathematician Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) just happens to be working for Biosyn on a short-term contract.

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Crimes of the Future

3 Jun

‘Crimes of the Future’: Familiar themes are fuel for more delicious creepiness from Cronenberg

By Tom Meek Thursday, June 2, 2022

It’s been eight years since David Cronenberg last made a movie. That film, “Map to the Stars” (2014) and his previous effort “Cosmopolis” (2012) were decidedly un-Cronenberg-esque, not that the director hadn’t stepped away from his psycho-horror roots before (“M. Butterfly,” “Naked Lunch” and “A Dangerous Method” among the many). The good news for Cronenberg purists – those who admire “The Fly” (1986) and “Dead Ringers” (1988) but burn for “Scanners” (1981), “Videodrome” (1983) and “Rabid” (1977) – is that “Crimes of the Future” marks a devilish return to the director’s fetish-fueled eroticization of gore and body mutilation. “Dead Ringers” and “Videodrome” stand at the head of that list, but more visceral and perhaps even more erotic than “Dead Ringers,” if that’s even possible, is Cronenberg’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel “Crash” (1996) about ecstasy seekers who literally get off on others’ mangled flesh and scars from willfully triggered automobile collisions. If the title piques your Cronenberg sensibilities, it was the title of his lightly regarded feature from 1970; while it has some thematic overlap, it’s not the same movie.

“Crimes” lands us in dystopian near future, when people grow new organs inside their bodies as a hobby. Pain is no longer an impediment and surgery, we’re told, “is the new sex.” The film centers on Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen, Cronenberg’s go-to collaborator, their best and finest being the 2005 crime drama “A History of Violence”), a renowned performance artist whose jam is growing radical organs in his abdomen and having his amour, Caprice (Léa Seydoux, dour and stunning), remove them onstage for an intimate underground audience to ooh and aah over. In context and theme the film weaves together Cronenberg signatures almost as if it is a farewell celebration of sorts: There’s that noted sexualized fetish frenzy from “Crash,” the notion of “the new flesh” from “Videodrome” and even an internal organ beauty pageant, something that was touched upon in “Dead Ringers.” Of all Cronenberg’s varied works, however, “Crimes” is most akin to “eXistenZ” (1999) with its array of skeletal, buglike animatronic devices that perform surgery and cocoon Saul at night to help nurture his new organs into being. Those sets and designs were eerie and surreal back in 1999 but now feel a bit dated and gimmicky, if not hokey. That said, the concept of evolution police and a national registry of new organs (they’re tattooed and tagged) intrigues, as well as the sub-race of what we might call mutants who can, with organ manipulation, consume plastics and other industrial waste – a handy parlor trick that doesn’t get explored enough in the context of plastic atolls or climate change.

The driving force of “Crimes” is Mortensen’s weary yet soulful performer, pasty, wan, vampirelike and forever in a cloak like a grand wizard. There’s a heaviness he bears from a clear physical and emotional toll. He’s a man on edge and asked much of by many; those at the registry (a breathy Kristen Stewart and an excellent snappy, nerdy Don McKellar) who fawn over his work and want more (even to be part of his show), the police (Welket Bungué) who want to put a lid on radical organ generation, and the leader of those plastic-consuming rebels (Scott Speedman) who wants Saul to feature the body of his murdered son in one of his pieces. What Saul wants is unclear, though you can feel his camaraderie and passion with Caprice. In one of the more arresting  scenes, after having old-school sex with her, Saul brushes the act off as something of a burden and blessedly archaic, which is the true crime of Cronenberg’s future vision. 

Top Gun: Maverick

27 May

‘Top Gun: Maverick’: Cruise, back in pilot’s seat, hits the same targets with wisdom of experience

By Tom Meek Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Hard to believe it’s been 35 years since Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer tangled in the Danger Zone. The original “Top Gun” (1986) was branded by ’80s flair (the hair), music (Kenny Loggins and Berlin’s hauntingly excellent “Take My Breath Away”) and the era’s go-for-broke excess (cocaine and unregulated Wall Street), something that got amped up for effect by producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer and director Tony Scott; amazingly, what’s on screen in the long-cooking sequel, “Top Gun: Maverick” eerily channels the spirit and vibe of that earlier film while sliding seamlessly into the now. It’s a neat parlor trick pulled off by director Joseph Kosinski, who worked with Cruise on the sci-fi thriller “Oblivion” (2013), and Bruckheimer (he’s back; Scott and Simpson died during the in-between years). The ace in the hole, as it was then, is Cruise. Do the math: Cruise was 25ish when he made the first one and near 60 here. If you look at him in both you’d be hard pressed to think that 10, let alone 20 or, god forbid, 35 years have passed. Sure, there are some crows feet, but the man is a movie star who maintains his asset like Tom Brady does – the main difference being that Cruise has to look good doing it, and you could argue that doing his own stunts at his age is as dangerous as avoiding oncoming linemen when you’re 15 years younger.

If you put the two “Top Gun” movies on the tarmac together, the newer one would leave the other in its vapor trail with relative ease. The 1986 chapter was steeped in macho cliches, the tang of pre-#MeToo sexism and thin characters pumped up to be more than they were. “Maverick” is more about soul finding than chest beating; while there’s some of the latter, it’s reserved mostly for the new young guns.

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Men

20 May

‘Men’: Escaping trauma and engendering horror

By Tom Meek Thursday, May 19, 2022

Alex Garland, the scribe behind “The Beach” (2000) and “Never Let Me Go” (2010) and director of “Ex Machina” (2014) and “Annihilation” (2018), continues to raise the bar on immersive psychological horror with this third helming – which, as the title might suggest, is about the male of the species behaving badly. It’s not so much a #MeToo rallying cry but a confessional of a long ingrained inequity, to put it mildly. The film begins with a poignant crack to the jaw as a young Londoner (Jessie Buckley), whose name we learn is Harper, stares out a window. It’s a beautiful view of the Thames and all things London until a man on the other side of the pane drifts slowly into frame. Their eyes lock for a knowing moment, and then he’s gone. You sit there in a prolonged “Wait, what the …” and the camera flips to Harper. Before her face can register as aghast, we notice she has a bloodied nose and a puffy eye.

The man in the window is Harper’s troubled – troublesome might be the better word – husband, James (Paapa Essiedu). In the aftermath of his death, Harper decides to decamp and decompress by renting a 500-year-old countryside estate for a long weekend. The Airbnb tour is given by the owner, an affable chap named Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear) who looks like Hugh Grant gone to pot with bad hair and buck teeth (the prosthetics work in the film is a minor wonderment); anyone want to pack their bags for this remote, verdant tranquillity, though Geoffrey’s late comments to Harper about not putting hygiene products down the loo and some nonsense about “forbidden fruit” are cause for a brow raise. Things are a tick off, and start to go off the rails when Harper, walking old train tracks now grown over and lushly green, yodels playfully into a moss-lined tunnel. It’s a freeing, symphonic cavort until a menacing figure appears at the other end and begins growling and hooting. Later a naked man (also Kinnear) wanders into the garden as Harper is FaceTiming with a bestie. She calls the police, who arrest the intruder (the female officer is compassionate, her male counterpart not so much, and dismissively tags the perp as harmless and wayward). Men, it seems, are initially welcoming and open to Harper, including a priest and a peevish little puck both also played by Kinnear, but ultimately rebuke her with condescending impunity for, essentially, being a woman. The film begins with a series of such macho microaggressions, but gets physical and wildly surreal down the line. To say more would be to dispel the perfectly orchestrated atmospheric dread and well-laid psychological horror that Garland and crew conjure up.

Thematically, there’s a lot to “Men”: the intersection of paganism and Christianity, religious sexual repression and, of course, the headlining gender oppression. But for all its grand motifs and moodiness, the characters and the film itself are fundamentally thin. Don’t get me wrong, “Men” is an all-consuming cinematic experience, and Buckley, so good in “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” (2020) and “The Lost Daughter” (2021), and Kinnear of TV’s “Penny Dreadful,” put on a thespian clinic. But Harper, when boiled down, is little more than a grieving woman who likely escaped an emotionally abusive relationship. One might even argue she’s in a better place. Part of our understanding of that gets filled in by meted flashbacks, where James is less and less the kind, compassionate gent you first got to know, and you wonder too much about how the two ever came together; the trauma manifests in the present with the cast of quirky lads lurking around the bucolic countryside. If you were a fan of Garland pushing the boundaries of reality in “Annihilation” (I was), he goes even further here while dipping his toe into folk horror and adding a few Cronenberg-worthy touches, such as a severed limb and male birthing. More direct and emotionally genuine jabs at institutionalized sexism would be Neil LaBute’s “In the Company of Men” (1997) and Kitty Green’s fictional take on all things Harvey Weinstein, “The Assistant” (2020). “Men” adds to that conversation, but not much that’s new. It’s how it adds that makes it a must-see curio.