Written and directed by Jordan Peele
Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Steven Yeun
Rated R. 130 minutes.
The cool thing about a Jordan Peele movie is the conversation it inspires is just as fun as the movie itself. What do you think that meant? Why was this plot device included? What’s the connection with this unrelated but equally weird thing? Peele’s stories are fertile ground for his audience to work over what’s been seeded, and the ideas that bloom from that churning are so much fun to contemplate. In that way, his imagination is infectious — and that’s one big reason his awesome images stick with you.
Nope is a fine addition to this tradition, even if the storytelling isn’t as tight as 2017’s breakout smash Get Out. Peele shows what he can do on a bigger canvas, filling the screen with the barren romanticism of the American West while telling a much more personal story. Otis “OJ” Haywood (Kaluuya) struggles to keep his family business — a Hollywood animal-wrangling outfit — afloat after his father’s death (poor Keith David!) in a freak accident. His sister Emerald (Palmer) joins him to help. OJ wants to sell the rest of his horses to child-actor-turned-theme-park-owner Ricky “Jupe” Park (Yeun), who made a nice second career for himself after an infamous disaster shut down his TV sitcom. When something appears in the endless sky above them, all three are taken by the promise of capitalizing on the spectacle.
To say anything more would spoil the movie, and I’m sure there are some who think I’ve said too much already. While the movie’s twists are definitely worth preserving, they’re not necessarily earth-shattering — at least, not as much as the traditional performance of secrecy would indicate. The story is good enough to hang on these smaller revelations, though, and the arcs of OJ’s and Jupe’s growth are fascinating to follow. Em is the live wire of the ensemble, giving the tale its forward momentum and humor. Their individual traumas, and the ways in which they overcome them, almost complete the puzzle that Peele has set for us. At least, by putting them next to each other, we can imagine what’s in the missing pieces easily enough.
And beyond the story, it’s a breath of fresh air to see black people treated as fully-formed individuals on-screen. Em and OJ inhabit their blackness with unaffected ease; while it’s an undeniable part of their story, it’s almost incidental to the events that unfold. Jupe’s Asian heritage is never mentioned; he’s allowed to exist as a child star, a hyper-Western cowboy-type, and a businessman without that qualifier. I wish more people had such a deft hand when handling the minority experience in America. It’s the kind of representation that would go a long way towards fixing our cultural self-image.
Overall, Nope is a decent movie that benefits most from being separated from the hype machine. It’s best to go in cold, and come out ready to talk about all of the questions that are still bouncing around your brain. Even the biggest spectacles are best digested in smaller groups.
3000 Years of Longing
Directed by George Miller
Screenplay by George Miller and Augusta Gore
Based on “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye” by A.S. Byatt
Starring Idris Elba and Tilda Swinton
Rated R. 108 minutes.
Is there any better avatar for wild, mythic masculinity than Idris Elba? He brings predatory intensity to any role, whether it’s a Norse god, a psychopathic tiger, or a drug dealer. There’s plenty of that energy in his Djinn. But he also serves as the beating heart of this surprising, beautiful two-hander with Tilda Swinton who combines cool rationalism with her femininity just as effortlessly.
Alithea Binnie (Swinton) is a narratologist, which sounds like the most fantastic job. During a conference in Istanbul, she buys an interesting glass bottle and inadvertently releases a djinn (Elba, obvs) with her electric toothbrush. The djinn offers her three wishes with the promise of freedom once he’s given Binnie her heart’s desire.
But Alithea is no fool. She knows that all stories about wishes are cautionary tales, and isn’t arrogant enough to believe she can break the mold. So the djinn must tease her out of her protective skepticism with the story of how he came to be in that bottle, and hope that something in the telling will prove his earnest need to be of service.
George Miller erases the border between the real and the fantastic with his usual deft hand. It’s easy to believe the djinn is just as natural as you or me, and this grounded wonder makes his relationship with Alithea as fascinating as everything else. As they share each other’s stories, there’s a sense that her narration is just as suspect as his, filtered through limited perspectives.
As a story, it’s self-aware enough to know we share Alithea’s reservations. There’s no way this can turn out well for either of them, even though, like Alithea, we’re slowly drawn in by the possibility that maybe this time it will. Much of this is carried by the patient encouragement Elba brings to the djinn, guiding Swinton’s narratologist past her logical defenses and into the messy, unreasonable pool of emotion. It’s beautiful to watch them become more curious about each other as they talk about the pain in their pasts, to see how understanding and empathy make them do the things that logic says they shouldn’t.
I was not expecting a story this introverted. Miller’s films are usually kinetic, creative explosions that smash through your reservations. 3000 Years of Longing takes the opposite approach, each moment removing a brick from that wall until you suddenly find yourself vulnerable. It’s rare to see a movie willing to slow down and take real pleasure in the simple act of telling a story well, with visual effects that ground the fantastic in a way that makes it believable.
It’s a warm, cozy film, perfect for fans of “elevated” fantasy like In the Company of Wolves or The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. And, if you’re a fan of either Elba or Swinton, this is the rare gem worthy of their unique talents.
Directed by David Leitch
Written by Zak Olkewicz
Based on Maria Beetle by Kotaro Isaka
Starring Brad Pitt, Joey King, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Brian Tyree Henry, Andrew Koji
Rated R. 126 minutes.
It’s been a surprisingly good year for grown-up action-comedies, with The Lost City dropping a few months ago. Brad Pitt, the patron-saint of the genre, had a small but memorable role in that. He’s the star here, an affable goof codenamed Ladybug who’s trying to adopt a more Zen philosophy on life. His newfound goal of peaceful conflict resolution and live-and-let-live outlook runs right up against his job (a mercenary) and his latest contract — retrieve a briefcase from a bullet train traveling non-stop from Tokyo to Kyoto. While a simple snatch-and-grab sounds easy enough, it turns out the train is populated with other mercenaries fulfilling contracts of their own. It doesn’t take long for them to come to cross purposes. Then, inevitably, to blows.
An impressive set-up to wind up and let loose on a train, with endless opportunity for inventive close-quarters combat, creative problem solving, and desperately muffled gunplay. Pitt is in his element here, and it’s impressive he can keep up with the frenetic action while still nailing the comedic beats that establish character and propel the plot forward. On top of that, the twisting script from Zak Olkewicz keeps you on your toes, jumping back and forth in time to establish motivations and relationships, plant mysteries, and sweeten jokes that come fast and furious. With a story like this, the hot mess tends to be the most enjoyable part — so it’s a welcome surprise when tying all the action together ends up being a delight on its own.
Pitt leads a game ensemble who get to shine with smart-but-flawed characters, each of them filling out their personalities through perpetual conflict. It’s honestly great to see Aaron Taylor-Johnson playing someone with personality again, and his chemistry with Bryan Tyree Henry (one of the best character actors in the game today) is off the charts. Give me a movie with just these guys, please!
David Leitch, who made his name with modern action classics like John Wick and Atomic Blonde, has a real gift for juggling complex action, story, and characters in a way that you never feel lost. That’s a lot harder than it looks here, with each beat landing solidly on top of another. There isn’t much time to catch your breath once the plot takes off, but he makes the most of each pause, absorbing the mayhem that came before and repositioning the pieces for the next big battle. That alone is a feat worthy of praise. Any single thing goes wrong, and the whole tale careens off the tracks. It’s a thrill to see Leitch and company not only stick the landing, but do it with so much style.
Bullet Train is a really good movie for fans of those indie action-comedies in the style of Guy Ritchie, Quentin Tarantino, or Robert Rodriguez.