Greetings from a humid August afternoon. It’s too hot to share some fun anecdotes so I’ll just cut to the chase: Yup, I’ve seen Nope. Yup, it’s been wildly overhyped by many critics. And nope, I don’t recommend it. And mind you, I was so blown away by the masterful and brilliant Get Out that I ranked it as my favorite movie of 2017. (I catch subtleties in the film even after watching it for the 20th time.) His much-hyped follow-up Us, instituted a clever conceit that only fell apart in the final twisty moments. But with the thriller Nope — in which Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer play siblings who discover sinister UFOs hovering above their California horse ranch — Peele delivers his first true disappointment. This is a case in which a writer-discover throws 284 interesting ideas at the wall and can’t figure out how to execute or connect any of them in a remotely satisfying way. I know there’s an underlying theme about exploitation; I think there’s a metaphor about balloons; I have no clue why Kaluuya’s taciturn character is named O.J. And don’t even get me started on the nonsensical monkey-gone-wild subplot.
But I will say this for Peele’s movie: I’ve spent way an inordinate amount of time and effort arguing about the issues surrounding Nope. Think emails, passionate texts to friends, personal blogs (see: above paragraph!). I interviewed an actor last week and asked him to weigh in with his thoughts. That says something. I can’t say as much for many of the other disposable films I’ve seen during this summer of 2022. This is a middle-of-the-pack season, no doubt about it. I loved Elvis and Top Gun: Maverick but those titles could hardly be considered wholly original popcorn fare. And though I’m a fan of the sleeper hit Where the Crawdads Sing, I admit that its many flaws — including the casting of the lead character! — can’t be denied. So as we head into the dog days of summer, here’s my roundup of the latest offerings. Is it Oscar season yet?
3 stars (out of 4)
The talented B.J. Novak (The Office) wrote, directs and stars in this sharp-as-a-knife drama that explores the intersection of media, race and class within the true crime phenomenon. He’s Ben, a smug New York City journalist who reluctantly heads a small town in west Texas for the funeral of a former fling named Abilene. (The rationale is a stretch; just go with it.) When her brother (Boyd Holbrook) insists that Abilene was murdered and asks him to help seek out the culprits, the lightbulb goes off. Instead of playing vigilante, Ben decides to bunk with her family and develop a podcast about the case, covertly framing his whodunit as a story about how people latch on to conspiracy theories to avoid facing reality. What starts as an obvious culture clash — hey, look at the slick city guy standing out at the rodeo! — ultimately becomes a surprising journey of self-reflection. Shout-out to a killer ensemble that includes Issa Rae as Ben’s no-nonsense producer and Ashton Kutcher as an ever-smooth local music producer. (Now in theaters)
Where the Crawdads Sing
3 stars (out of 4)
In 2018, Reese Witherspoon selected Delia Owens’ debut novel for her Book Club. Now she’s helped bring the coming-of-age tale to the big screen, and it essentially hits the right notes. Deep in the North Carolina marshes in the 1950s, a young girl named Kya is abandoned by her family and must find a way to survive on her own. She’s known around town as “Marsh Girl” and shunned by society, save for a kind boy named Tate (Taylor John Smith). Years later when her well-to-do ex (Harris Dickinson) is found dead on the grounds, the now-grown Kya (British actress Daisy Edgar-Jones) becomes the main suspect and goes on trial for her life. As a whodunit, the film is clunky and illogical — complete with laughably clichéd courtroom scenes. It’s way more effective as an atmospheric drama about how to be unfailingly resilient in the face of danger. Thanks to its deliberate pace, audiences get to know Kya intimately and root for her all the way. (Let’s credit screenwriter Lucy Alibar for the interesting characterization; the doe-eyed Jones lacks the down-and-dirty grit required for the role.) And just when you think the ending is as obvious as humidity on a Carolina summer day, an unexpected twist is chills-inducing. See for yourself. And judging by the surprisingly robust box-office numbers, many of you already have. (Now in theaters)
The Gray Man
Chris Evans is determined to hunt down Ryan Gosling at all costs!!! In theory, that premise alone should ensure a good times summer popcorn flick. But this glossy action thriller doesn’t quite get the job done — or, in this case, fulfill the mission. Gosling’s “Sierra Six” is an ex-con-turned-top CIA mercenary who must keep his identity a secret. When he discovers a few shady secrets about the agency, he becomes the target. And the man on his trail, played by Evans, is an elite assassin and major loose cannon. The chase crisscrosses the globe, from France to the Czech Republic, adding an extra layer of international intrigue. The scenery also covers up an incoherent script that needed a few more polishes. This is a story stuffed with characters and sub-plots, never quite sure which one to focus on. (Rege-Jean Page looks fab but has little to do as an agency honcho.) And though the tone is more light-hearted than the stakes imply, the humor — which includes a scenery-chewing Evans calling Gosling names like “sunshine” and “pumpkin” — is too juvenile to truly amuse. That said, the two leads are having super-sized fun here. It’s a credit to their charm that even some of it leaps off the screen. (Now streaming on Netflix)
2.5 stars (out of 4)
There’s an unwritten rule when adapting a Jane Austen novel: If you’re going to finagle with classic source material, it better be a clever endeavor. (See: The recent Fire Island.) This quirky version of the author’s final work doesn’t quite pass muster. Dakota Johnson goes British as Anne, a 27-year-old romantic struggling to move on after her broken engagement to Captain Frederick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis). He re-enters the picture just as she finds love with the dashing Mr. Elliot (Henry Golding). Though Persuasion is considered one of Austen’s most sophisticated books, the tone is cheeky froth — a bold risk done to middling effect. Despite a 19th century setting, characters flit around and talk as if they’re in a cute rom-com. Johnson constantly and distractingly breaks “the fourth wall” to make asides to the audience. These gimmicks detract from a leading lady who should be a deeply felt heroine but instead comes off as a too-snappy spinster. Still, that satisfying ending can’t be denied. (Now streaming on Netflix)
2.5 stars (out of 4)
The title is ironic. Ok, yes, technically the titular character (Joey King) in this medieval fantasy is a beautiful royal. But she’s more comfortable wielding a sword than wearing a tiara and takes it upon herself save her kingdom from ruthless mercenaries. Sound fun? Alas, it’s really not. When we meet the The Princess, she’s already locked away in a tower in her father’s castle because she refuses to marry her betrothed suitor (Dominic Cooper). In her defense, he’s a mean and power-hungry sociopath. To get her way and save the day, our heroine kicks and claws and catapults and fights a series of enemies. Some of this martial-arts action is indeed wow-worthy — and bravo to the talented King, who sells it all credibly. The problem is that there’s little style and substance beyond the relentless combat. Five consecutive lines of dialogue would have been appreciated, not to mention one joke! Sorry, no happily ever after here. (Now streaming on Hulu)