NOPE

Posted on July 20, 2022 at 3:58 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout and some violence/bloody images
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, vaping
Violence/ Scariness: Extended science fiction peril and violence, characters injured and killed, very graphic and bloody images, jump scares
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: July 22, 2022

Copyright Universal 2022
Yep. This is one scary movie. Jordan Peele’s new film, “NOPE” does not have the depth of cultural commentary of his Oscar-winning script for “Get Out” or his follow-up, “Us,” but it is a smart, scary movie with a strong storyline, great performances, and clever details. Plus, it’s shot on IMAX and Peele, cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (“Interstellar,” “Tenet,” “Ad Astra”), and production designer Ruth De Jong (“Twin Peaks”) know how to fill the screen and use every bit of it to tell the story.

OJ Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya of “Get Out” and “Judas & The Black Messiah”) is a horse trainer, like his father, grand-father, and several greats. According to his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer of “Hustlers,” “Lightyear,” and “Akeelah and the Bee”), their family goes back to the very first moments of moving pictures in 1878, the two-second series of cards showing a man riding a horse. The family business is training horses for movies and television.

After a brief, terrifying preface on the set of a 90s sitcom, we see OJ and his father Otis (Keith David) working on the ranch, talking about the importance of making sure an upcoming job goes well and annoyed that Emerald has not shown up. Then something strange happens. There are disturbing sounds, like the zings and thwacks of arrows. The sound design by Johnnie Burn is creepy, evocative, and never less than outstanding. A key on a ring pierces a horse’s rump. Shrapnel hits and kills Otis.

The ranch is isolated, but nearby is a small cowboy theme park owned by former child star Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yuen of “Minari”) and his wife, Amber (Wrenn Schmidt of “For All Mankind”). Pressed for money, OJ has been selling horses to Jupe, hoping to be able to buy them back some day. But Jupe wants to buy the entire ranch.

Meanwhile, both are beginning to be aware that the strange electrical disturbances and glimpses of something in the sky may be from another world. More important, Ricky, OJ, and Emerald see this as a potential for profit. Jupe wants to make the extraterrestrials an attraction at the park. If OJ and Emerald can get good, clear photos of aliens, they can get on Oprah!

Yeah, they’re going to need a lot more than a bag of Reese’s Pieces if they’re looking to find a cute little ET for Oprah.

That scary preface I mentioned comes back. Something went horribly wrong at a live taping of a silly sitcom starring a little Asian kid and a chimp. That child grew up to be Jupe. While he speaks smoothly about the “SNL” sketch based on the incident (Chris Kattan as the chimp!) and is happy to point out artifacts from his past, a theme about the relationship between animals and the humans who think they can tame them appears as unsettlingly as the odd sounds we hear. We see it again as the horse named Lucky misbehaves at that crucial job OJ’s father was concerned about. Or rather, the humans misbehave, giving an inadequate safety briefing. OJ mumbles until Emerald arrives and her presentation is more about her than it is about the horse. It is not a coincidence that both of these problems occur in the highly artificial performative environment of a show, the most heightened version of human life with the strange sounds and hot, bright lights and a deep gulf between reality and fantasy. There’s nice brief moment when someone reacts to OJ’s name as though he’s connected to OJ Simpson (it stands for Otis Jr.).

This ties in with the idea that the first reaction OJ, Emerald, and Jupe have to the idea of aliens is to make a show of them. How we present ourselves and how we are perceived is core to this story, going back to Emerald’s diversion in what is supposed to be a safety briefing to a description of her ancestor, the jockey in the prototype for moving images, where the horse’s name was identified but not the name of the human riding him. At June’s little theme park, Emerald inadvertently photobombs a group of visitors. And later, two more characters are added to the effort to document the aliens, Angel Torres (Brandon Perea) a blond-tipped sales and installation specialist from a big box store who sells surveillance cameras to the Haywoods and wants to find out what they want to surveil, and the fabulously named Antlers Holst, fabulously played by Michael Wincott, a cinematographer artiste who like to “make one for them, one for me” and considers capturing images without electricity a creative challenge.

There are a lot of ideas here, including some sly digs at Peele’s own industry that could fit in a Key and Peele sketch plus a dazzling series of visual images. The air dancers the Haywoods bring to the ranch, the wonderfully imagined, just tacky enough details of the theme park, the connection between Jupe’s cowboy hat blown away by the ship and the ship itself are all brilliantly designed. Every performance is superb. Schmidt and Yeun make us wish for an entire other story about their relationship. Kaluuya continues to be one of the most fascinating actors working today, bringing a rare sense of thoughtful gravity and stillness to the screen. Keke Palmer, always great, gives her best performance yet as we see Emerald become more grounded, more fierce, more aware of her connection to the brother who stayed when she left.

There are too many ideas, too many things to see to come together with the impact “Get Out” and “Us” had. But it is wonderfully entertaining and provocative enough to spark what I’m sure will be some fascinating online speculation, and to add to Peele’s reputation as one of the most significant filmmakers of his generation.

Parents should know that this film includes tense and scary sci-fi peril and violence with some graphic images. Characters are injured and killed. At one point in my notes I just wrote: “BLOOD!” There are jump scares and fake-outs. Characters use very strong language.

Family discussion: How does the relationship between OJ and Emerald change? Why are the sections of the movie named after the horses?

If you like this, try: “Get Out,” “Us,” “Coherence,” and the various versions — except the most recent — of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”

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Lightyear

Posted on June 16, 2022 at 5:54 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended sci-fi peril and cartoon-style violence, sad death
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: June 17, 2022
Date Released to DVD: September 12, 2022

Copyright Disney 2022
Watch carefully in Lightyear for a moment just for those kids born in in the 80s who were the first digital natives. A cartridge inserted into a computer deck is not working correctly, and Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans taking over from Tim Allen) has to fix it. What does he do? Say it with me, people in their 30s: He blows on the exposed tape side and re-inserts it. Now, that may not have worked in real life, but thankfully, it works for Buzz.

This kind of detail is what we expect from Pixar, along with superbly crafted films that make us laugh, gasp, and cry. We’re reminded at the beginning of “Lightyear” that in 1995 Andy was given a Buzz Lightyear toy from his favorite movie. And then we’re told that this, what we ae about to see, is that movie. It doesn’t need to overdo the 90s references, but once in a while, like the blowing on the cartridge, we get a reminder that the lovable nerds at Pixar know us all too well.

This is not the toy Buzz Lightyear who has some existential confusion and thinks he is the actual character. This is the actual character, a lantern-jawed space ranger, the All-American boy next door type, brave, loyal, extremely good at his job, and stubbornly independent. His closest friend is fellow Ranger Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba). But he does not work well with others, especially rookies.

Buzz and Alisha are on a long-term space journey. They stop to investigate an uncharted planet and, as anyone who has ever clocked a red shit on “Star Trek” knows, it turns out to be much more treacherous than they expected (though, thankfully, to have breathable air). As they are on their way back to “the turnip,” which is what they call their rocket due to its shape, the rocket is so badly damaged they are stuck. All of the 1200 passengers who have been in suspended animation will have to be awakened to find that they are marooned, with no way to return to the mission or go home.

Buzz is determined to save the day. He undertakes a very dangerous test flight. For him, it is four minutes. But, due to the difference between time on a planet and time in space, he returns to find that four years have passed for Alicia and everyone else. Things have changed. The space travelers have built a community. Alicia is engaged to a scientist. People have adapted. Buzz feels responsible for getting them stuck and he is determined to keep trying until he gets the necessary mix of elements to give the rocket the fuel it needs. But each test run means another four years. He comes back and Alecia and her wife are expecting a child. He comes back again and the child is four years old. His life is passing in minutes and his friend’s is passing in years, in decades.

Other than Alicia, Buzz’s only companion is a robot cat. Think a combination of R2D2, C-3Po, and Captain Marvel’s Flerken. Ultimately he will find a group of people who do not have the training, discipline, or skills Buzz has always relied on in his missions. All of the difficulty he has had in relying on others is multiplied just as it has become necessary to trust them.

The reveal near the end did not work as well for me, but I especially liked the way it deals with two issues we don’t often see in movies for children, how to move on after making a mistake, learning to see the best in people, and learning to rely on others. As always with Pixar, the movie is filled with endearing characters and witty and telling details, brilliantly designed settings, sublime silliness, and exciting action scenes and yes, you will cry. It is easy to understand why this was Andy’s favorite movie.

Parents should know that this film has extended sci-fi peril and violence with scary robots and sci-fi weapons. There is a very sad death. A devoted gay couple is portrayed in an admirably matter-of-fact, low-key manner with grace and dignity.

Family discussion: Why was it hard for Buzz to accept help? What is the best way to make up for mistakes?

If you like this, try: The “Toy Story” movies, “Galaxy Quest,” and the old Flash Gordon serials.

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Ice Age: Continental Drift

Posted on July 12, 2012 at 6:00 pm

The “Ice Age” folks have the formula down very well, and this fourth entry is one of their strongest, with enough of the familiar to be satisfying and enough that is new to keep things interesting.  The real expertise is the mixture of heart, humor, and adventure, in what is now one of the most reliably entertaining series for families.

It begins, as “Ice Age” must, with Scrat, the saber-toothed squirrel who is the Sisyphus of the pre-historic era.  Scrat (voiced, or, I should say, squeaked and squealed, by  director Chris Wedge) wants an acorn, but it is his destiny to have it always just beyond his reach or to create chaos when he tries to bury it.  Both happen right off the bat as inserting the tip of the acorn into the ice has results that are literally earth-shattering.  Yes, it turns out that the reason the continents separated and moved to opposite sides of the oceans was because of a squirrel.

Meanwhile, our old friends Diego the cranky saber-toothed tiger (Denis Leary), Manny the anxious Mammoth (Ray Romano), and Sid the silly sloth (John Leguizamo) are on the wrong side of the dividing tectonic plates and become separated from Manny’s mate Ellie (Queen Latifah) and his tween daughter Peaches (Keke Palmer).  Just as Manny and Peaches are in conflict because she wants to hang out with her friends and he thinks she is too young, the ground buckles and cracks underneath them.  Diego, Manny, and Sid are adrift on an ice floe along with Sid’s dotty grandmother (Wanda Sykes).  Like Daniel Day-Lewis in “Last of the Mohicans,” Manny promises, “I will find you.”  But they have no cell phones or GPS or even maps.

And then things get worse, as they run into a pirate crew on a ship made from ice led by the piratical Captain Gutt (a sensational Peter Dinklage of “Game of Thrones”).  His first make is a female saber-toothed tiger named Shira (Jennifer Lopez).  Our heroes must battle Gutt’s gang and find their way back home.  Gutt and Sid’s granny are welcome additions to the cast, adding vitality and flavor to a cast whose conflicts have subsided in the previous chapters.  The animation is exceptionally well executed, especially the roiling water and a very funny reaction to a paralyzing plant.  The action scenes continue to be crisply executed and the happy ending includes lessons on loyalty for friends and family.  If it merrily ignores any historical or scientific legitimacy, it shows its value with wit and heart.

(more…)

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Joyful Noise

Posted on January 12, 2012 at 7:00 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for language including a sexual reference
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Tense family confrontations, bullies, brief fight, gun, sad deaths
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters including disabled character
Date Released to Theaters: January 13, 2012
Date Released to DVD: April 30, 2012
Amazon.com ASIN: B007HHWJSA

Joyful indeed — this movie is pure cinematic sunshine, guaranteed to brighten the heart and gladden the spirit.  Super-divas Dolly Parton and Queen Latifah play rival gospel choir leaders in an inspiring and heart-warming story filled with love, laughter, music, and praise.

G.G. (Parton) is still mourning the loss of her husband Bernard (Kris Kristofferson) when she receives another blow.  She expected to take over his duties as choir leader but the church council picks Vi Rose (Queen Latifah) and her more traditional approach instead.  Vi Rose’s husband is in the military and out of contact.  She has to take on extra work to support Olivia and her son Walter (Dexter Darden), who has Asperger’s syndrome that makes social interaction difficult.  She is devoted to the choir, a source of stability and connection for her.  She wants it to be competitive but it is more important to her that it be clear that the focus is on the music as worship, not performance.  When they get a chance at the national title — and a budding romance between G.G.’s grandson Randy (Broadway star Jeremy Jordan)  and Vi Rose’s daughter Olivia (Keke Palmer of Akeelah and the Bee) — G.G. and Vi Rose will have to find a way to work together harmoniously.  And that, after all, is what a choir is about.

Writer/director Todd Graff demonstrated in the underrated Camp and Bandslam that he understands teenagers as characters and works well with them as performers.  His sincere and sympathetic appreciation for their stage of life is a pleasure to experience.   Graff also understands the passion of those who love to perform before a live audience and the challenges they face.  As an experienced theater nerd himself he knows how to stage musical numbers.  And he is remarkably adept at managing a lot of characters and story lines gracefully, giving each element of the story its own dignity and spirit and sensitively evoking a touching sense of a small-town Georgia community hit hard by the economic upheavals of the past five years.  I would have excised a not-very-comic sub-plot about one choir member’s difficulty finding a date after a man dies following their first night together.  But the rest is skillfully blended with some sharp dialog.  “You’re so country you’ve been married three times and have the same in-laws,” one character teases another.  “Your train of thought makes all local stops,” says another.

Queen Latifah gives her best performance to date because Vi Rose is the most complex character she has played to date, giving her a chance to show her confidence, her humor, and her warmth.  She shines in a terrific speech about what incandescent beauty really means and sings a moving “Fix Me, Jesus.”

Parton makes a welcome return to feature films after nearly two decades in a role as tailor-made for her as her fitted choir robes.  G.G. is flashy and outspoken.  But she, too, is trying to hold on in difficult times.  She is estranged from her daughter and trying to care for her grandson.  In a scene of piercing sweetness, she remembers her life with her husband in a tender duet that gently evolves into a trio.

Jordan and Palmer are enormously appealing, with a quiet chemistry that lights up the screen.

Parton’s three tuneful new songs are mixed with raise-the-roof adaptations of gospelized classics Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed” and Michael Jackson’s “The Man in the Mirror.”  On stage and off, Graff shows us the characters’ kindness and sense of connection even when they frustrate each other and it feels very genuine.  There is a lot of heart in the musical numbers that deepens our pleasure in seeing the characters find what the harmony they are looking for.

(more…)

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Interview: Keke Palmer of ‘Joyful Noise’

Posted on January 10, 2012 at 8:00 am

Keke Palmer has been one of my favorite young actors since Akeelah and the Bee.  She has a warm and relatable screen presence and a purely delightful personality with a lot of energy and enthusiasm.  That’s more than enough to build a career on.  But she also has extraordinary discipline and ability as an actor with remarkable range from the sitcom “True Jackson, V.P.” to appearing opposite Kevin Spacey in Shrink.  In “Joyful Noise” she co-stars with powerhouse performers Dolly Parton and Queen Latifah and more than holds her own.  She also sings, dances, and has a very sweet romance with Broadway star Jeremy Jordan.  Keke spoke to me about singing on screen for the first time and the lessons she learned from co-star and producer Queen Latifah.

I loved the movie!

Thank you so much — that means a lot!

You were terrific with Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton.  What did they teach you?

I learned a lot from them.  Working with Queen Latifah for the second time , I really got to understand how she creates this empire for herself.  The people who surround her now are the same team she’s been working with since high school.  So I learned from her that if you surround yourself with good people who want the same things you do, these are the kinds of things that you can do.  And from Dolly — just watching her kindness to everyone, her openness, not guarded at all, how she treated people.  She’s amazing!

Writer-director Todd Graff made his third film in a row about teenagers.  Does he have a particular understanding of that stage of life?

He is a very empathetic person.  He is very gifted in that way.  He can get inside people’s heads, not just teenagers, everyone.  The character Queen Latifah plays is so much like my mother!  He didn’t know my mother; he’s not a black woman; but he was able to create a character so genuinely, that people can relate to.  He can look at people and disect them and create them for the screen.  When I read the scene where my character’s mother tells her about what it is to be beautiful, I said to him, “This is brilliant!”

Was this your first time singing on screen?  How was that?

We recorded the music before we went to Atlanta.  We had to lip-sych, which is harder — I ended up blowing my voice out because I had to sing over me!

Why is gospel music so powerful?

It is the soul that’s put into gospel music and the passion the singers have behind it.  You can often tell the difference between a singer that grows up in the church and one that just can sing.  There’s a connection to love and support and care.  You feel good when you hear it.  You feel the people have so much conviction in what they’re singing.  They believe it so you believe it.  Not that you can’t find that in other music or other singers.  But a lot of the time when you see someone that makes you feel something when they sing, they will tell you they grew up in the church.

Tell me about working with your co-star Jeremy Jordan.

He’s an amazing singer and did a great job in the film, which was his first.  It’s hard being a Broadway actor going into film where you have to tone everything down.  In theater, everything you’re taught is to be big and broad and make everyone feel like they are right next to you even in the last row of seats.  In our conversations with Todd he would give us ideas and background about our characters and what they had when they knew each other before.

Do you have a favorite scene?

The scene with my character and her brother makes me cry every time.  When you’re down and out or suffering a disability or something has been taken away from you you can question things.  In order to pick it back up you have to realize as Queen Latifah says that God is like a parent.  We may not understand why we go through things but and there is a brighter and bigger lesson to see.  God wants us to overcome all of the obstacles.

What’s next?

I’m working on a movie called “Virgin Mary” with Abigail Breslin.  I’m also in “Ice Age 4: Continental Drift.”  And I have a television movie coming on Nickelodeon that I worked on with Nick Cannon.  I acted in it but I am more excited about being a producer!

 

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