What to Watch: "Nope" (Yup.) "The Gray Man" (Nope.)

Plus "Fire of Love," "My Old School," and "How to Change Your Mind."

What to Watch: "Nope" (Yup.) "The Gray Man" (Nope.)

A quick roundup of new films in theaters and on demand this weekend (not counting Ethan Hawkes’ splendid HBO Max documentary series about Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, which I wrote about yesterday).

Daniel Kaluuya in “Nope”

“Nope” (in theaters, *** stars out of ****) – I liked the experience of watching Jordan Peele’s new movie more than I liked the story line. Correction: I loved the experience of it, because Peele’s third film is his most cinematically ambitious and demands to be seen on a large screen. (It’s opening today in IMAX as well as in regular theatrical formats.) A Black sci-fi horror Western sounds like a goulash that can’t work, but the director – channeling “Jaws,” “Close Encounters,” “Signs,” and B-flick classics like “Tremors” – knows to keep the focus on his characters and his tongue at least half in cheek. That said, there are moments in “Nope” that are terrifying, including an opening image – a bloodied chimpanzee on a sitcom sound stage, human legs protruding from a nearby couch – that burns into your brain with its disturbing originality.

What does that image have to do with the rest of the movie? Well, that’s one of the issues. “Nope” concerns a dusty ranch out in the desert beyond Los Angeles, the brother (Daniel Kaluuya) and sister (Keke Palmer) who run a business training horses for Hollywood movies, and the something that’s up in the sky above the ranch, hiding out in a cloud that never moves. There are many surprises in the film, and I’ll spoil none of them, other than to say that Peele and his cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema invest the film’s wide horizons with skin-pricking dread and that this is the first creature feature where the artist Christo appears to have been a design consultant.

l. to r. Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, and Brandon Perea in “Nope”

Peele isn’t terribly interested in the ligaments that might hold his various subplots together, and “Nope” isn’t as thematically concise as “Get Out” (2017), the film that rightly put the director on the map. Way down in its basement, it’s about the exploitation of wild things (chimps, horses, extraterrestrials) by the entertainment industry and by humans seeking profit, and how we shouldn’t be surprised if the wild things strike back. But mostly it’s about Jordan Peele making an aliens-attack movie on a big scale but also on his own terms, with infectious filmmaking energy, and I’m here for it. Kaluuya (morose) and Palmer (motor-mouthed) are both delightful, and the score by Michael Abels is a compact history of Western-movie music all by itself. “Get Out” remains Peele’s high-water mark so far, but while the 2019 follow-up “Us” might be a better movie than the new one, “Nope” is a lot more enjoyable.

Chris Evans and Ryan Gosling in “The Gray Man”

“The Gray Man” (on Netflix, * star out of ***) – This is the streaming giant’s hoped-for entry in the lucrative action-man-franchise genre pioneered by Tom Cruise in the “M:I” movies and Matt Damon’s “Bourne” films. And it as aggressively, soullessly stupid a chunk of high-density concrete as you’ll ever dial into. Ryan Gosling, drained of energy, and Chris Evans, acting as bad and as badly as he can, are a good CIA assassin and a villainous CIA assassin battling across a dozen datelines while letting fly with bullets, rocket launchers, and flaccid one-liners. Mark Greaney’s novel has nine sequels, and Netflix is thirsty for this to be a hit, to the tune of a $200 million budget. It’s all there on the screen in fight scenes and flying masonry, unruffled by the tiniest bit of plot logic or recognizable human emotion. The directors are Anthony and Joe Russo, masters of the Marvel Cinematic Universe; they don’t make movies, they make demo content for the TV aisle at Best Buy.

“Fire of Love” (in theaters, ***1/2 stars out of ****) – Sara Dosa’s documentary about Katia and Maurice Krafft – married volcanologists who died in a 1991 eruption – sounds like another “Grizzly Man,” with more silly humans fooling around and finding out from a violent, uncaring natural universe. It’s not quite that, if only because the Kraffts knew full well what they were getting into and were bonded by their love for each other and for the field of research that was essentially their child. The film footage they shot of lava flows and explosions is astounding and almost abstractly beautiful – art at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Alan Cumming in “My Old School”

“My Old School” (in theaters, *** stars out of ****) – Charming, alarming, disarming documentary about a high-school student named Brandon Lee in early ‘90s Scotland and the secret he carried that rocked his fellow students and ultimately the entire country. Director Jono McLeod was one of those students, and he rounds up his classmates for an on-camera reunion of recollections that is very funny and a little too uncritical. The flashback sequences are appropriately animated in 1990s “Daria” style, and because Lee agreed to be interviewed but not filmed by McLeod, actor Alan Cumming lip-syncs Lee’s words in a dazzling act of deadpan technique. One of those true-life tales that gets stranger as it goes, although there’s still a gauzy hole at its center where a person should be.

“How to Change Your Mind” (on Netflix, *** stars out of ****) – A thoughtful, provocative four-part adaptation of Michael Pollan’s best-selling book about psychedelic drugs, their histories, and their spiritual, medical, and therapeutic applications. Pollan is the host, chatty and engaging, and the episodes cover LSD, Psilocybin, MDMA, and Mescaline, exploring the ways they can bring the human mind to a more intimate and meaningful relationship with reality while offering new (but actually quite ancient) approaches to treating disease and mental issues. Informative and enlightening; I recommend it, uh, highly.

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