Tag Archives: Steven Speilberg

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. 

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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Never Rarely Sometimes Always

4 Apr

‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’: Pregnant, finding guys are manipulative jerks, Part II

Never Rarely Sometimes Always' Review: Pointed Film Stays With You Forever  : NPR

Eliza Hittman’s short list of films have focused on teens involved in strange sexual relations with adults, be it a girl looking to blossom by hooking up with a ruffian in “It Must be Love” (2013) or a boy in “Beach Rats” (2017) seeking to discover himself by meeting up with older men he encounters online. Hittman’s latest, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” is something more subtle, yet equally dark in its exploration. The narrative structure here is lean and simple, buoyed by emotional depth and a pair of outstanding performances.

We meet up with teen Autumn (newcomer Sidney Flanigan), who likes to play guitar and sing and hang out with her cousin, Skylar (Talia Ryder,) in a podunk Pennsylvania burg. After a talent show we learn that tensions are high between Autumn and her stepdad (Ryan Eggold), who seemingly has it out for the eldest in his house, and that Autumn is pregnant and heading into her second term. The identity of the father is never laid out explicitly – there are a few possibilities, such as one boy who heckles her during the talent show, or another who makes a lewd, public sexual comment in a pizza shop; there are other less pleasant (relatively) prospects, as well. Besides her cousin and her clueless but caring mother (musician Sharon Van Etten) there doesn’t seem to be a lot of love for Autumn in the Mid-American strip mall of a town. When she goes to a clinic to confirm she’s pregnant, the practitioner plays a religious right anti-abortion PSA on teen pregnancies.

Autumn’s path takes her to New York City, where a minor doesn’t need parental permission to obtain an abortion. She’s got her cousin in tow and her mother in the dark, and you fear the city will eat them up – they don’t have much money, and the only person they know is a goofball by the name of Jasper (Théodore Pellerin) whom they met on the bus.

The meaning of the film’s wordy title: possible responses to a questionnaire at a clinic that give us insight into Autumn’s past. Hittman’s style here is so on-the-street and in-real-time, the film feels like a documentary, which gives “Never Rarely Sometimes Always“ a gritty, honest edge deepened by chemistry forged between Flanigan and Ryder (who will be in the upcoming Steven Spielberg “West Side Story” production) and their immersion into their respective characters. The unspoken bond of sisterhood and the weight of the world Autumn seems to bear go far behind the topographical anxiety in Bo Burnham’s satirically sharp “Eighth Grade” (2018).

Also this week I reviewed “The Other Lamb,” a curio about a cult of women led by an enigmatic Jesus figure. In that film, a young woman by the name of Selah (Raffey Cassidy) struggles with matters of sexuality and fertility under male-held reins. In countenance, and the intense pondering in her eyes, she’s Autumn’s kindred – trying to comply while trying to break out, fighting for her identify as she blossoms into womanhood.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

28 Jun

 

“Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” arrives in theaters this week with plenty of dino-wow, as one might hope, but with a bronto-sized side of mommy issues and some sustainability woes to boot. Which to tackle first? Hopefully you’re up on what went down in “Jurassic World,” the 2015 relaunch of the “Jurassic Park” franchise made so indelibly by Steven Spielberg and Michael Crichton back in the 1990s. Those first three “Parks” dug deep into our imaginations, with their all-too realistic renderings of T-Rex and lethally heeled velociraptors, and they slew at the box office. “World” marked a respectable redux, but “Fallen Kingdom,” gets weighed down with a fossil-heavy backstory and never quite achieves the amusement ride thrill that made its ancestors such scary good fun.

As with all the “Jurassic” flicks, the action begins down in Costa Rica, at the theme park from the last chapter that’s been abandoned and overrun by rampaging dinos. The crisis du jour becomes increasing volcanic activity that threatens to “re-extinct” the “de-extinct” lizards (okay, birds). Congressional debate rages about saving them or not and, blessedly, Jeff Goldblum looms at the epicenter with rapturous logician metababble; then, just like that, the crew from the last “World” – the park overseer (Bryce Dallas Howard) and raptor wrangler (Chris Pratt) – are back as part of a conservation effort to get as many of the dinos as possible off the island and to a “sanctuary.”

The pair go in at the behest of a benevolent billionaire (James Cromwell, in a requisite but wispy role) who partners them with a team of big game hunters that feel a lot like the bunch from the second film, “The Lost World: Jurassic Park,” (1997) and are led by Ted Levine, surprisingly not too far from his Buffalo Bill in “Silence of the Lambs.” There’s a lot of Spielberg DNA to be found in “Fallen Kingdom” – Pratt’s smug, everyman posturing and action sequences feel right out of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” but just because you clone something doesn’t mean you get exactly what came before. That brings us back to those mommy issues: There’s a precocious little girl by the name of Maisie (Isabella Sermon), who may or may not be the billionaire’s granddaughter, and there’s Blue, the empathetic raptor from the last “World” raised by Pratt’s Owen, who holds the key to controlling the new line of mega-raptors being weaponized for trade and profit. Yes, sadly it all comes down to military-industrial complex shenanigans, avarice and hidden agendas.

Given the one-percenter station of many of the players in the film with their fingers on the stings, I kept asking myself, how much is too much? Why do billionaires need a lousy 20 million for ankylosaurs? The answer to which can only be power and control. The pomp and arrogance through which it’s executed feels far too profound a metaphor for the carnivorous control that’s taking hold across the country these days. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but given the big, bloody slab being dangled, one has to bite.

The film’s natural subtext of “don’t mess with Mother Nature” – because payback’s a tooth and claw feng shui session – gets executed with perfunctory perfection at the apt hour. The wrap-up of the film, directed by Spanish director J. A. Bayona, best known for the arthouse horror film “The Orphanage” (2007), becomes its most provocative and resonant moment. Much of what precedes it is dull despite all the thrashing, and it doesn’t help that all the combative-romantic chemistry between Pratt and Howard in the last “World” has seemingly gone the way of the dodo (no, they have not been brought back yet). Overall, “Fallen Kingdom” makes it feel like the series might be done for, even though where we end feels like a launching pad – a place of opportunity, laden with possibility.

Bridge of Spies

16 Oct

James Donovan (Tom Hanks) must go to great lengths to rescue U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers from Soviet Russia

Courtesy of Dreamworks Pictures

James Donovan (Tom Hanks) must go to great lengths to rescue U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers from Soviet Russia

When people think about the body of work Steven Spielberg has put out over his illustriously long and celebrated career, most gravitate towards the fantastical fantasies imbued with childlike wonderment (ET and Close Encounters of the Third Kind) or the satiating swashbuckling adventures (Raiders of the Lost Ark andJurassic Park). Before all that however, Spielberg minted the blockbuster with Jaws and later, with stark, visceral effect, crafted the preeminent cinematic portrait of the Holocaust (Schindler’s List), a film which still resonates as an exposed nerve. Recently, the solemn lessons of history, more so than adolescent curiosity or high adventure, have become the inspiration for Spielberg’s creative vision.

Spielberg’s last history lesson, Lincoln, was a plumbing of a stout character standing tall and resolute in the face of grave opposition and the tenuous society hanging underneath. The director’s latest,Bridge of Spies, follows the same blueprint, but unlike Abraham Lincoln, few have ever heard of James Donovan, an insurance attorney from Brooklyn, N.Y. More relevant from the history-book perspective perhaps is Francis Gary Powers, the U2 pilot shot down over Soviet airspace and taken prisoner in 1960. Continue reading