No Time to Die

Any of you who have visited this site in the past probably have a pretty good idea of how I feel about the James Bond Franchise. If you are new let me summarize, 007 is my favorite fictional character and I have a passion for these movies. The break between “Spectre” and “No Time to Die” was supposed to be five years, much too long in my opinion for we addicts. Then along came the pandemic, MGM and Eon pulled the film off the schedule, wisely seeing that the venues for films were being closed in many places. The movie got pushed back to October, then to the following April again, and then to a second October. It has now been 18 months since the originally scheduled opening of the film. I have been impatient and frustrated with each delay and now that it is finally available, I have issues.


I will preface my comments with an acknowledgement that there is not a 007 film I would not watch again in a heartbeat (except the 1967 parody Casino Royale), and that includes this new entry, the 25th in the official canon of Bond films (excluding “Never Say Never Again”), so take what I say to you now with that perspective in mind. I am disappointed. 


When the decision was made to follow up Daniel Craig’s first outing with a direct sequel, I was Ok with that. “Quantum of Solace” has flaws, and my reaction was muted. “Skyfall” on the other hand changed all that into a bundle of enthusiasm that I still feel nine years and two more films later. Although there were references to earlier Craig films, “Skyfall” felt like a stand alone 007 film and it worked incredibly well, providing a fresh story but also providing a good deal of fan service. In 2015, “Spectre” stepped back into making the Craig films into an extended narrative, and that was one of my initial reservations about the film. As time went by and I saw it more often, my attitude changed and I think it got right what “Quantum” was trying to do in keeping a story line in place. “No Time to Die” is an attempt to wrap all of this up but it trips over some of the traditional tropes of the Bond series. I much prefer the closeout that “Spectre” presented to us than the package we got this week. 


Looking at just this movie now, instead of worrying about the five film story arc of Craig’s run as Bond, the first strength that it presents is the mash up of two pre-title sequences. The callback to Madeleine Swann as a child, ties in nicely with a story she told in an earlier film. It is visualized very effectively and uses an overhead perspective in an interesting way that accentuates that what we are seeing is a memory. When Bond and Madeleine travel together on a pilgrimage to a grave, we get a nice travelogue, followed by a terrific action sequence and then the titles. So far so good. The Billie Eilish performed song is substantially improved with the title sequence behind it. That said, it is still not a dynamic song for the film to build it’s themes around. The best music cues in the rest of the film come from earlier Bond films, including “Casino Royale” but most noticeably, “On Her Majesties Secret Service”.  The title sequence begins some of the fan service call backs that we can expect from Craig’s swan song. Polka dots and silhouettes appear in the background, bringing the spirt of Saul Bass for a visit to a James Bond film. 


Now we get to the first main issue that weakens the film for me, the recruitment  of 007 for this mission by Felix Leiter in an off the books C.I.A. plot, that somehow runs afoul of MI-6. I will try to explain this without spoilers, but the mess that Bond is going to try to clean up, is a result of his own former service’s mistakes. In another tip to older Bond films, one group is playing another group against two other groups. In “From Russia with Love” the Soviet agency SMERSH is being played by SPECTRE against the British. Here, the Brits are being played against SPECTRE, who are being shined by a new unidentified group, and the C.I.A. is an accidental tool for pulling it off. How can this be? Well simple, “M” suddenly loses the moral convictions that guided him in the last film and the intelligence he had shown since “Skyfall”. Ralph Fiennes was one of the strengths of the two previous Bond films and now his character Mallory, is a liability. This shortcut to plot development also requires that Felix Leiter, as played by Jeffrey Wright, loses about twenty percent of his IQ.  Maybe the idea here was to tear everything down and start anew, but it feels like a fast way to get another plot going without developing the villain any more than you did in the first five minutes of the film. 


Second major flaw in the film is, as is way too true in all sorts of films, the Villain. Rami Malek is fine for what he is asked to do, the failure is not in the performance it is in the writing. Safin appears as a character in the first scenes of the film. His performance there is wordless and we get right up to a key moment when there is a jump cut to a point many years later. We never learn how he got from point A to point B, to become a nemesis of Spectre and a threat to the whole population of the world. When we get to the monologuing in the third act,  there is a lot of yammering in low key soft voiced menace, but there is no motivation whatsoever. There is no plan, or financial gain or philosophy behind his actions. The idea that the weapon can be isolated to killing only particular people was undermined by the fact that if they have DNA alleles in common, which would be a family connection, then the nanobot virus jumps. Six degrees of separation people, the world is connected genetically and there will be leaping. No explanation is offered as to who is supposed to be spared or why or how. This is a completely random plan, that is supposed to be targeted, but no targeting explanation is offered and they undermine their plan with this flaw in the DNA process that they are using for only an emotional plot point. 


The third thread of problems is the relationship between Madeleine and James. I can believe in their love, and that James has overcome his emotional complications with Vesper, but it gets wiped out by an inference that while reasonable, could also be dispelled with some investigation. His willingness to severe a commitment like this on his conclusion without looking into it further is out of character. Her acceptance of it and then inclusion into MI-6’s interrogation of Blofeld is after the fact odd (although it was a leap I was willing to take for the purpose of suspending disbelief). That she is being manipulated as a tool of Safin is shown, but not really explained. There is a good scene between her and Safin in her office, they interact in an interesting way, but it does not make her motivation clear. The incident between them a quarter of a century earlier is supposed to be the explanation, but it really does not explain anything. Bond and Madeleine rekindle their romance after he discovers a secret she has, and that makes a little sense, but this same plot device was widely criticized in a 2006 comic book movie, and I can see a similar response here. I don’t have an issue with it, except that it is being used as a manipulation of the characters to justify the conclusion of the film. 


Final acts are difficult, and the final act of this film, and the fact that this film itself is a final act in the story arc, makes it even more so. The resolution that they chose, undermines the emotional set up that was created to make a dramatic point. Safin has manipulated the DNA of the characters so that they can never be together physically again. That would also preclude a relationship with the secret character that has changed Bond’s perspective. Fine, that is a emotional gut punch that would make Bond have to suffer, but the solution that the writers came up with was to eliminate that immediately through a much more certain outcome. It was unnecessary, and if you are looking to finish with an emotional slap to the face, the DNA imposed separation would have stronger resonance. 


There are other points that are bothersome as well, but little things can be overlooked when everything else is working. Obviously, things were not working for me so a couple of things I might have let slide by, jumped out at me instead. How the greatest asset that British Intelligence has, manages to get the most sophisticated bionic technology in history, planted in his eye socket while he is under their control is beyond me. I guess “Q” had the weekend off when that surgery was arranged. As much as I like what they have done with Ben Whishaw’s version of “Q”, he seems to miss some opportunities to stop problems or to explain how a problem could be stopped. Case in point, the EMP watch that 007 uses in going after the island fortress of Safin. If it can blow out an electronic eye, would it not do the same to the electronic ear that Bond is wearing? Story consistency is an issue in a lot of places. 


There are a lot of things I liked in the film, I just wanted to get my reservations out of the way first. Ana de Armas and Lashanna Lynch are welcome to any future Bond films, although with the rebooting that will be required, I’m not sure how they will manage to do this. Paloma, the CIA?, contractor was a hoot in the Cuban sequence, and her action creds were established in a definitive and funny way. Nomi, the new designate for the prime number, was bad ass although she needed to do a little more as part of the insertion team at the end. M will need agents like her to cover for his future mistakes if they plan on keeping that character in his current mode. The chase scene though the Norwegian forest was very effective, I liked the subtle way Bond adjusts his choices given his passengers. I also thought the by play between Bond and Christoph Waltz as Blofeld worked well, that was a solid scene even if in the end it had little to do with what is happening in the story.


Okay. I am off to see it a second time right now. When I get back, if I have more thoughts I will add them here. 
Addendum/Second Screening


Well it was a good decision to go back for a second time, because my opinion of the film substantially improved. I’m not sure if my attitude was different because expectations were altered, or if some of the choices they made were clearer in hindsight. 


For instance, it is a lot clearer now why Madeleine cooperates with Safin’s plan for Blofeld when she and James meet up at the prison. Blofeld’s dialogue also makes more sense in hindsight, although how he obtained his information is still unclear.  


M’s motivations are a bit more focused when you see what is going on, although it is still very clear that his character’s ethical standards have shifted entirely away from the point of view that he had in the previous film. 


There are several characters I did not mention earlier that ought to get a quick note here. Logan Ash, the State Department CIA wannabe, is such a trope in the Bond Universe, it would have been more fun to go the opposite direction with him. As it is, the part contains no surprises and the only creative element to him, his fanboy admiration for Bond, doesn’t get as much use as it should. 


Speaking of not getting much use, Naomi Harris returns as Moneypenny, but she mostly sits in the office like in the old days. It would have made sense to give her some of the tasks that Q got shoved his way, and then her contribution would be more meaningful. 


Primo, who Bond dubs Cyclops, is your standard henchmen with a quirk. In line with Odd Job and Jaws, he has a physical distinction that is a minor part of the plot. I do think that the electronic eye gets used for comic relief more than anything else, and that also feels like a slightly missed opportunity. The link between him and Blofeld could have made it a stronger place to provide exposition, instead of making us try to figure out what is going on. Oh, there is another plothole here as well since he escapes the attack on Spectre in Cuba for no clear reason at all. As a member of Spectre and Blofeld’s prime surrogate as a walking Zoom call, you would think that Safin and Obruchev’s hijacking of the plan to eliminate Bond would have targeted him especially.  Speaking of comic relief and exposition, the ping pong acquisition of scientist Valdo Obruchev, worked for the most part. His secondary villain status reminded me substantially of Boris Grishenko from “Goldeneye”. The Russian accent probably accounts for that because the Frank Oz look alike they have in the part certainly appears different. 


These insights are a little random right now. I continue to try to avoid spoilers, so I will discuss some of the plot elements that will make this film controversial among 007 fans, in a post down the road. I at first thought the pacing seemed flat and that the direction by Cary Joji Fukunaga was off. There is probably too much quick point and shoot in the finale, James Bond should not be John Wick. On the other hand, the locations are beautifully shown, and it seems like they went a long way to allow Safin to get Bond’s toothbrush. Let me leave off by saying after my first viewing, I felt let down. Going a second time, probably for the reasons I mentioned, resulted in an encouraging shift in perspective. I still have reservations but …


“Never Enough to Say No”


So go see it now that it is here. 

Titane

Winner of the “Palme d’or” at this years Cannes Film Festival, “Titane” arrives with a lot of notoriety and high expectations. From director/writer Julia Ducournau, in her sophomore effort, the film attempts to subvert genres, transcend expectations and shock audiences. As those are the intentions, you could say the film largely succeeds. Where it fails is in keeping us engaged. The stitching holding this Frankenstein’s monster of a film together is evident in most places, and the degree of willingness of the audience to allow themselves to be subdued by the director is in direct proportion to the degree that you will like the film. 


The two ways you can commit to the film are either as an exploitation film,  or as a piece of social polemic that targets gender, tradition, logic, and horror conventions. Since I had problems accepting either path, the movie does not do much for me, but why are those two trails unproductive? Let’s start first with the exploitation angle. We are not given any reason to care about characters in the story, so when something happens to them, our fears, hopes wishes don’t really matter. In a revenge film, we need to see why the offense was egregious, in a sex movie we want to be turned on by the characters, and in a horror film we need to be able to identify with the characters. This movie is not interested in those feelings. The closest we get to any of the traditional tropes of exploitation is a feeling of revulsion. 


The movie is probably aiming at that social introspection approach, and in some ways it is successful in getting us to look at the situations from a different perspective. The idea that people are forced to adjust their expectations by switching gender roles is hinted at early on in the film, when we discover that the main character, a woman, is a serial killer. Although there are exceptions, the vast majority of these sorts of murders are committed by men. The motivations of female killers in this classification are usually monetary, and Ducournau hints that a sexual fetish is connected to the actions of our lead character, Alexia, but that connection is distant at best. There may be some underlying trust issue that fuels her rage at the victims, but it does not seem consistent and it is certainly not clear. When Alexia takes on the persona of a man, she ceases to murder, and we are asked to question whether the gender switch is cosmetic or emotional in it’s impact on her behavior. 

About halfway through the film, our second major character arrives and he presents similar conundrums about sexuality. As an alpha male in a masculine dominated work culture, we would anticipate his use of power would come easily to him, it is instead a trial for him to impose his will on his “son”. Vincent is aging and his weaknesses are being masked by his use of steroids, so in a way he is modifying his appearance just as Alexia is doing, but using different means. None of the circumstances that take place when these two come together are meant to be believable, they are only moving the characters into positions from which the sly transgressive nature of the story can be played out. Every time one of those moments happened, it drew attention to the notion that “here is something we should be looking at.”  I suppose one of the reasons that it doesn’t work for me is that I have rejected that sort of deconstruction since I was in college. It always feels like an affectation to me. Sometimes they can be intellectually valid, but often they seem like mental onanism. 

The strengths of the film are not in the narrative, or the themes, or in the stupefaction of the things we see on screen. What merits the film has are in the visuals, the movie does have a hypnotic effect. The stylized camera movement in the introduction of the adult Alexia is a nice starting point to illustrate this. In one sequence of violence we see desperation, fury and humor and that all works. The moments between Vincent and Alexia, when they come together in the training bits or in dancing in his living room, are magnetic. The way the camera is used to display her body as it is morphing both under her control and out of her control, is the work of someone who knows what they want their film to look like, even if you can’t say why that is the choice being made. This is definitely a confident film maker.  


I will come clean, I can’t recommend this film because it mostly irritated me in spite of the strong techniques. If you like being lectured at for your blindness to sexual stereotypes, then this could be something you would appreciate. I was hypnotized, but in a sense of somnolence rather that fascination. 

Skyfall Revisit

I am particularly piqued with Great Britain today, they get “No Time To Die” now, and we have to wait a week. I suppose it is acceptable since Bond is a UK export, but since we have added 18 months from the originally scheduled release, I feel like I have been more than patient. Anyway, as it turns out, AMC noticed that we were being tortured so in an effort to put balm on the sore, they are running “Skyfall” for a week at a discount price. This is good news since “Skyfall” is the best Bond film since the early 60s.
There is so much to love about this film, regardless of what you might think of the story (which I think works great). The addition of Eve Moneypenny as an active part of the story may have been easy for most to spot, but I still liked the fact that they wait for the reveal until the end of the film. 

The fact that she nearly killed 007 makes for an interesting dynamic for future stories, and her active status makes her involvement down the road more believable.

 
When John Cleese was introduced as the new Q back in the Pierce Brosnan era, it was clear his persona would mimic that of Desmond Llewelyn, that of a prickly bureaucrat with technical know how. Ben Whishaw is still a bit officious as “Q”, but the humor is more a part of the story and less punchline delivery. His youth in contrast to Bond also makes some sense and adds some more places for natural repartee to exist. 

I also thought it was a clever move to show us how “M” could have gotten the job in the first place. Gareth Mallory starts off as the political hatchet man for the administration in moving the previous head of MI-6 out of her role. When he picks up the gun and starts shooting back at the attackers in the Parliamentary hearing room, it is clear he is not simply a political animal. Ralph Fiennes could have easily been the choice for 007 a decade earlier, at this point he was much more appropriately cast.

The real treasure of the film however is the redoubtable Judi Dench, who made Eight appearances in the role, including one after having vacated the position. This is the meatiest storyline for the character in any of the 24 films from EON. I liked that she never lost her sardonic tone, even when the character is besieged by politicians and the antagonist of this film.  

This film came out nine years ago, on the 50th Anniversary of James Bond on the Big Screen. Much was made of the fact that the gun barrel sequence did not appear until the end of the movie, but that was really just the exclamation point for the anniversary. There were so many things that were special about the film, it was nice to be reminded of them today. It may be a bit of fan service, but calling the Aston Martin DB5 back into action was a thrilling moment. The final act confrontation was very well staged and technically looked terrific. We also got a great 007 Theme song from Adele. 
For me, the final thrill is in the new office for “M”, when Moneypenny takes her place and Bond enters through the padded door that felt so familiar, and he addressed Mallory as “M”. I was ready for the next film that minute. It happened again today when my screening was finished. 

Somehow, I have to get through the next six days. 

Dear Evan Hansen

I can imagine that this worked really well on stage as the actors can feed off of the audience’s emotions and the immediacy of the theater brings everyone together. That feeling is hard to replicate in a film. Movies have an influence on the audience but the energy level does not change from each showing. The emotions can only flow in one direction, and the somewhat static nature of a film , even one that is dynamic, does not provoke in the same manner. The difficulty this movie will have is less due to the material and more to the medium.

One of the problems that I have with modern musicals is that the tunes are not distinctive and the lyrics don’t lend themselves to singing along. So much of this film is made up of dialogue that is sung and could easily have just been spoken. There are not any extravagant show stopping moments. The closest you get to something that you would describe as a production number is a sequence that takes advantage of social media as a way to advance the song and character. It’s as if this movie is the anti- “In the Heights”.  That movie was all about the wild color and flourishes of a musical, this film is all internal self directed mediation where the songs are basically happening in a persons heads more than anywhere else (there are a couple of exceptions).

The story has it’s heart in the right place. The perspective of someone suffering from social anxiety, depression and ADD, is handled with a great deal of sympathy.. In my discussion of the film on the podcast this week, we had a brief debate about whether the lead character of Evan Hansen is the victim or the antagonist in the story. We all agreed he had the best intentions but we also acknowledge that old saying about the road to hell being paved by those kinds of intentions. For my part, I always try to see the context of events to try and judge actions. Evan’s deception takes place in circumstances where being honest would be hurtful to others, and he can’t bring himself to do that. The pain of the family of Connor is impossible not to empathize with. Connor was troubled, his sister at one point calls him a monster. He was certainly horrible to many others, but that seems to stem from biological and chemical issues more than anything else. The fantasy that Evan concocts would have been fine if he had not crossed a certain line and if Connor’s Mother could just accept the story on it’s face. Like every sitcom over the last fifty years, one complication has to lead to another and in this situation the result is tragic rather than humorous. 

I have heard some criticism of the decision to stick with Ben Platt as the lead for the movie. He is the Tony Award winning actor who originated the role, but he has aged enough that playing a high school senior may be a reach. I did not really have a problem with that, since I have been conditioned by years of watching movies with thirty year old’s playing teens. His voice is superlative for the way the songs are arranged and presented. I may not be a big fan of that style but I can recognize the talent it takes to pull it off. The other actors are also capable in the singing department. Amy Adams is known for having those talents but Julianne Moore and Kaitlyn Dever have not been singers in the past, at least not that I am aware of, they both meet the needs of their parts.

This movie was going to be a hard sell from the get go. In spite of it’s credentials on the Broadway Stage, is is not a very appealing subject to most audiences. In the past we have had a successful holocaust comedy and a semi successful teen terminal cancer love story, so why not a musical about depression and teen suicide? The answer is that people go to the movies for different reasons than they go to the theater. The earnestness of your stories intentions don’t always translate into a warm audience embrace. We can be manipulated emotionally, but we have to be open to that manipulation to let it have an impact on us. Movie audiences are very fussy about what they will let themselves accept. My guess is that most of the film audience, in these times, will not be receptive to this sort of storytelling. 

Copshop

I did something today that is always fun, and sometimes pays off. I spun the wheel on what to see and went in blind to watch Copshop, the latest from director Joe Carnahan and actor producer Gerard Butler. I have seen a few of Carnahan’s films, my favorite of his is “The Grey”, the Liam Neeson Wolfpunching story from 2011. Butler has become the King of the “B” movie in the last few years, and he does in fact rule. I had no idea what the story involved, I’d not seen the trailer or read a review. I chose the film entirely based on the combination of these two talents. Boy am I glad I did. This is a tasty bit of nastiness that borrows heavily from the 1970s, and that is my jam.

When the credits start at the beginning of the film, I could swear I knew the music that was being played. It reminded me of a gritty 70s film like “The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3”. It sounded like a Dirty Harry score. Imagine my delight when I sat thru the end credits and confirmed that the theme music from this movie was basically “Magnum Force”, by Lalo Schifrin. There are a couple more music cues in the film that harking to the early seventies. The film does finally get to a contemporary pace and style in the climax, but first we are treated to a slow burn set up that reminded me of so many films from that earlier era that I love. We end up with two guys confined in a space and wonder how and why that are facing off. The ambiguity feels very much like some of those cop films of the dirty New York era but this is set in Nevada. 

This is a cross between “Report to the Commissioner” and “Assault on Precinct 13”. The two leads, Butler and Frank Grillo, are not good guys by any stretch of the imagination. Their showdown results in so much collateral damage that it will inspire books and movies for years if it really happened. It’s not the sort of John Wick violence where there are as many bodies as there are bullets, the dead do have some weight to them and so it feels a little more engaging from a story point of view, without the style of the modern shoot em ups that we have had in the last few years.  The best hook in the film however, is the third billed Alexis Louder, who is the real star of the film and I think is making a breakthrough with this part. She plays the cop in the middle, who adheres to a code of ethics and has the skills to fight back when needed. I thought her persona jumped off the screen from the first moment she appeared. 

It would not be fair to the supporting actors not to mention the good work they are doing in what is likely a film that most people will see as disposable. Ryan O’Nan, who will be familiar from several TV projects, is a feckless cop with corruption in his back pocket.   It is Toby Huss however who steals the show for villainy in the piece. I literally saw him in an episode of CSI just last night, but this character was very different. If the psychotic contact killer can be classified as the comic relief in a movie, than I will say that is the part that Huss plays. Anthony Lamb (not really subtle) is a competing killer, injected into the mix to add some spice, and boy does he. 

The film is not great, it has plot holes and unbelievable recoveries from gunshots that undermine any credibility. You won’t care however because it is entertaining as hell for those who like the plot to play out over the course of the film and not have everything handed to them is a series of fast cuts designed to get the adrenaline jumping. Butler does very limited action duty, and Grillo is not attempting any martial arts moves. This is a shootout at the end of a psychological puzzle, and it satisfied me completely. 

Citizen Kane 80th Anniversary Fathom/TCM

There is probably no more discussed, written about, argued over and idolized film than “Citizen Kane”. What is amazing is that it has remained near the top of so many lists of the greatest films of all time, 80 years after it first appeared. The reasons are straightforward, “Kane” created the template that so many films that came after it also follow. The visuals are creative, the movie is shot from non-traditional perspectives in most of the scenes. The Edits are integrated into the story, they are not simply stopping places before the next scene. Film Noir owes a deep debt of gratitude to Gregg Toland who shot “Citizen Kane” like it was a noir story. The film also gave us Bernard Herrmann, who would go on to create unforgettable scores for a dozen iconic films.

Far be it from me to commit to trying a new take on the classic, this will simply be a few random observations that I made at my screening. To begin, if you were seeing this for the first time and watched the opening five minutes, you would think this was a horror film. It is possible that some could classify it that way, but most of us get past those trappings as the story plays out, although by the time of the conclusion, you may revert back to that original impression very easily. 

The characters in the story appear at different ages and in various degrees of warmth or aggravation with the title character. The one exception that I noticed was Everett Sloane’s Mr. Bernstein, who somehow managed to roll with every mood that Charles Foster Kane went through, and still remained loyal to him. Maybe that would classify him as a sycophant, but after everything plays out, I thought he was the one character in the story who you could always feel sympathetic towards. Joseph Cotten’s Jed Leland becomes a self righteous hypocrite,  in spite of the fact that he is basically correct about his friend Kane. I hope that I hold no grudges so long that I could not reach out to a former friend near the end of their life and provide a small amount of solace by giving them a phone call. 

When I went to the list of credits on the IMDB page, I was amazed at the number of actors listed as having participated in this film. They are uncredited in the film but the list is as long as your arm, it includes dancers, singers, reporters, and pedestrians. Everybody got to be a part of history. Ben Mankiewicz, the TCM Host who is also the grandson of the screenwriter, provided a brief introduction and coda for the Fathom presentation of the film. There was nothing particularly new in anything he had to say, but it did include a reference at one point to the David Fincher film from last year, with the notation that the film about the making of the film got twice as many Oscars as the film that inspired it.

Orson Wells accomplishment with this film was something incredible for the level of film experience that he had, which was basically none. Regardless of the controversies over the screenplay, the author of the film is pretty clear and you can see his imprint on every frame of the movie. “Citizen Kane” does not need me to recommend it, my only purpose is to remind you that it is out there, waiting for you to discover for the first time, or rediscover for your thirtieth time. 

Cry Macho

Long in the tooth and slow in the gait, Clint Eastwood still has enough star power to wipe most other performers off the screen. This 91 year old national treasure keeps working and making the cinema world a better place as a result. While “Cry Macho” may not be up to the standards of his greatest films, it is certainly entertaining enough and it speaks to issues that seem contemporary, even though the film is set forty years ago. 

Many Eastwood films have featured him in the role of mentor to a younger character. “Gran Torino” was all about a cross cultural lampooning and deconstruction of supposed “toxic masculinity”, so it is not really a surprise that this film treads familiar ground. Clint’s character Mike Milo, is a used up man, without much to look forward to except release from this world. When his estranged friend and former employer played by Dwight Yoakam enlists him to go to Mexico City and essentially kidnap his 13 year old son from the Mother that he has divorced, Mike sees red flags but also a chance to find some purpose to his continued existence.  

There are a couple obvious problems that I want to discuss early and get out of the way. The dialogue in the two set up scenes is not good and the performances by the two leads live down to that quality. The film starts to feel like it is just conveniently setting up the road trip for us without bothering to make the characters that inspire it feel believable. The “antagonists” in the movie are the kid’s Mother and her boyfriends and entourage. They are also not very believable, in fact there is one moment that may cause a spit take from the audience. But…once Clint and the kid connect, the picture is on much steadier grounds and the characters begin to feel more as if this is a story worth telling. Young Eduardo Minett is a slightly more natural actor than his counterpart in “Gran Torino” was, but both performances feel a little amateurish. The character of Rafo does start to grow on us, in spite of some adolescent faults that are irritating early on. 

The connection between the man and the boy is of course the main point of the story, but there are some surprising detours along the way, including some time spent in a small Mexican town and the people of that town. In particular, the two fugitives, find a stronger familial bond then they have experienced in a long time. This interlude is the strongest part of the story and will make you want to forget what has been set up and instead settle down with the possibilities that are now presented to the man and boy.  Eastwood’s directing style which has always focused more on character than cinematic flamboyance, seems a perfect match for this section of the movie. There is some gentle humor and only a little tension during these sequences. Once they hit the road again, there is an opportunity for Clint to do some basic action that is still acceptable for his age.  The tension in his film “The Mule” from a couple of years ago was mirrored almost exactly when a couple of federal Mexican police pull over the two and we get some sly dialogue that apes the earlier film.

Admittedly, Clint may be a decade past where he could pull this off without difficulty. Still I think his performance here works. The romantic elements of the picture have little to do with sexual attraction and instead focus on the sorts of qualities that people really should be looking for in one another. There is a conundrum built into the mission when we get a plot point revel later in the story. Mike will not be able to resolve it, but he has prepared young Rafo well enough to be able to figure his way out of the issue when it comes up, sometime after our movie ends.

The film will have to make due with an older audience because the things that draw in the typical movie crowd these days are largely missing from this. No real gunfights, barely any fisticuffs, no action scenes per se and a romantic relationship between characters that could be their grandparents. This may be a film that works with Warner’s HBO Max/Day and date simultaneous release. I hope older audiences will go out to see the movie, but if you can’t bring yourself to do that, click the watch button and enjoy an efficient little drama that starts off shaky but finishes well. 

Jungle Cruise

A year ago when this was originally due, I was really looking forward to it. Somehow the extra year weaned me off of anticipation, the exact opposite of “Dune” and “No Time to Die”. So this movie, which has been out for six weeks was almost gone from my radar, but then I noticed that it seemed to be hanging around for a lot more time than most new releases. I had a blank spot in my afternoon and going to a movie is my default action. When I saw this was still playing and it was available as a matinee, I found the requisite enthusiasm to venture out. I am really glad I did, it was a completely enjoyable experience. 


Most of the time, Dwayne Johnson has not let me down. There are not stars that can guarantee a movie opening, not anymore. The closest we have are Tom Cruise and the former “Rock”, so maybe there is still a little hope for Hollywood in the star system. Julia Roberts was once one of those actors who could open even a bad movie, for me, Emily Blunt is the female star most likely to get me into a theater. It is not the combination of the two stars however that make this film a “want to see”, it is the premise. Disney has had varying degrees of success turning theme park attractions into film franchises.  We are still getting “Pirates” movies, but no one is clamoring for another “Country Bears”. “Jungle Cruise” just feels like it out to be a Saturday adventure film. The Disney ride at the park is inspired by “The African Queen” and “King Solomon’s Mine”. It always felt like a live action Tarzan film. Translating it to a theatrical film is mostly successful but you have to keep the context in mind. This is a Saturday Seial brought to life, it should not be looked at as anything else. 


As I was watching it, a dozen other films came to mind. I mentioned “The African Queen”, the boat in the ride and this feature is based on the boat from that film. The search for a lost treasure of course brings up a lot of films, but “Jungle Cruise” feels very much like the Brendan Frasier “Mummy” movies of the 1990s. There are moments cribbed from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” which itself cribbed from a thousand other films. When the cursed conquistadors showed up, I caught Disney stealing from their own theme park movie series and I began to wonder if Johnny Depp was going to show up. He doesn’t, but a half dozen similar ideas crop up. Dwayne Johnson plays Captain Frank Wolff, who is full of scams to keep his business going. The opening section includes a tourist cruise that gives the Rock a chance to do the kinds of puns that fill the tour at Disneyland. If I’d ever wanted to work at the Magic Kingdom, it would have been as one of the boat captains on the Jungle Cruise attraction. The corny quips are not as frequent in the rest of the film but there is a nice call back at the conclusion of the film.

The adventure is mostly light hearted but there are some deaths that occur that might bother the little kids. Nothing is too graphic but some sympathetic characters get sacrificed to elevate a sense of danger. My only film making criticism is that the movie does feel a little long. The story could have been tightened and maybe a couple of the big CGI scenes could be shortened substantially. As a live action cartoon style adventure however, I think it hits the right notes. There are a couple of places where the modern sensibilities wisely sidestep some of the cultural land mines that were present in the old ride, but only one thing seemed to be particularly woke, and it is so subtle that most kids won’t notice it.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra has done several films I have enjoyed, including, the Liam Neeson trifecta of “Unknown“, “Non-Stop“, and “Run All Night“. My favorite of his films however is the Jaws inspired “The Shallows“.  He is currently finishing up another Dwayne Johnson picture “Black Adam”, It’s a DCEU film which is scary, but it does stem from the “Shazam” stories so maybe it will work, we will see. Meanwhile, Jungle Cruise is still sailing, so hop on board, but be sure to bring a big bag of popcorn, because that is the only nutrition you’ll get on the expedition, most of this is the cotton candy that you crave in the summertime. 

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

I don’t know all the comic book characters in the Marvel comics, because I stopped reading comics in 1969. I have nothing against them, I just developed other interests. Fans of the comics however will be burdened by their expectations with the introduction of each new character in a big screen adaptation of the comic. I both benefit and suffer because of my detachment. I benefit by not having preconceived notions about how a character should be played, what stories to be told and I don’t have the artwork from the comics haunting my brain and forcing unfavorable comparisons. I suffer because I miss out on the anticipation of a new character. I don’t have a ready data base of knowledge to draw upon when trying to figure out who is who in a new film. So which of these two sides do I prefer? It’s simple, I like my ignorance because it fuels my joy of discovery. This week, I got to discover a Comic Book hero that I suspect I will enjoy for a long time. This movie surprised me in all the good ways a movie should.

Moving into Phase Four of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe was going to be a challenge for me. Most of the characters I was long familiar with were being retired from active film service. I knew that new storylines and characters were coming, I just was not sure how I would respond to them. When Doctor Strange showed up in the MCU, I did not think I would care much for that type of story. It did not take long for me to take to it with enthusiasm. I felt the same way going into this film. I thought it might be OK, and I would live with being a little underwhelmed. It is so great to say I went the other way. This was a blast, the character has great potential, and the world building in this was not so convoluted that I rejected it out of hand. When taken on it’s own out of context, it is pretty darn great. 

There are comic fans who grow weary of origin stories, but I am not one of those. I enjoy discovering the background of a superhero, learning about their human weaknesses as well as their strengths. If you create a rich environment and colorful characters to go with the hero, so much the better. Shang Chi starts in the past, travels to different dimensions, operates in familiar contemporary environments and then takes us back to those magical dimensions that we started off with. This film also manages to accomplish something a lot of comic book movies fail at, creating an interesting climax for the final battle of the movie. We were given enough information to know that we should dread something that is coming, but it was not belabored and when it arrives, there are still surprises for us and some tension as a result. 

I’m not sure I would love a whole comedy show by Awkwafina, but I have been given enough of her in movies the last few years that I appreciate the dose level she is providing at the moment. Whenever she is on screen, expect a little injection of fun. When she gets some opportunity to act she has been solid (The Farewell), and in this movie, she gets to be more than the comic relief. There are a bunch of wonderful actors that I am not familiar with because they appear primarily in television shows or in Asian language films. Tony Chiu-Wai Leung as the powerful and evil Xu Wenwu was appropriately conflicted, he is more tunnel visioned than bad in this story. Simu Liu was great as the lead, he is not simply an iron fisted warrior, but presented as a complete character with a sense of humor and a young man’s foolishness. Michelle Yeoh, provides an elegant touch with aging beauty and wisdom to go with her character’s stern demeanor and family traditions. 

Because there are some connections to earlier MCU films, it would be a spoiler to reveal too many appearances by other actors. I will say that the presence of one character in particular helps redeem his storyline in an earlier film, and makes this one the sort of fun movie we have expected from Marvel since the first “Iron Man”. So even though the earlier MCU films have played out their plots, there are still strings to be tugged on, and doing so has lead not to the unraveling of an intricate piece of knitting, but rather it reveals some hidden gems that we will get to explore more. It’s great when a movie is so much more than you expected, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is one of those. 

Free Guy

Officially, my favorite phrase from the above preview is “Not Streaming August 13”. I know that will not be popular with some people who because of their local restrictions or personal anxiety about Covid-19, are unable/willing to go to a theatrical presentation. I on the other hand want the Cinema platform to survive, and if the studios cannibalize their audience with day and date streaming, that experience will become the horseback riding weekend of the future. You know, people going retro for a few hours but doing so on very rare occasions. My second favorite line was “Fox Firesale” because this was a Fox film that Disney acquired when they purchased Fox and it has a specialty Label, “20th Century Studios” (let’s see how long that lasts). 


Repeatedly delayed, not because of quality but in trying to get to a date where the audience will show up, “Free Guy” is an absolute delight and for my money, one of the better pictures this year. I know it will go down like cotton candy or bubblegum flavored ice cream, but there is a little more to it than just the empty calories of CGI action fun and Ryan Reynold’s arch humor. There is a moral question that the characters in this story face. It may seem far fetched to think so, but A.I. is all around us , and the future is here. This film is a bit like “Her” , only instead of worrying about the effect of A.I. on the human race, it turns it around and wonders what responsibility humans would have to an A.I. creation. It is much less grim than the Kubrick/Spielberg A.I., but some of those themes are present. At least enough so the movie is not just jokes about video games. “Ready Player One”, “The Lego Movie” and “The Truman show, all have similar plot elements that mix reality with fantasy, and this film does it through the portal of  Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing games like Grand Theft Auto. 


I’ve said it before, I am not a comic book guy. So imagine how distant I am from the video game industry that now dwarfs my beloved film world. Most kids in the next generation will more quickly recognize characters form “Fortnite” than they will classic film characters. The last video based game I played was “Space Invaders” and that was a arcade version, I know next to nothing about the on-line gaming community, despite having a “Twitch” account. I do however know some of the routines from other mass culture and I did not really have a problem with most of the references. Several people appear on screen who I think are probably YouTube Gamer celebrities, This is another place where I can see my time as a member of the culture is limited.  I am sure there were some things that got by me because I am a newb, but I still enjoyed the film anyway.


Ryan Reynolds has cornered the market on sly, insider humor touched by both naivete and sadistic comic book violence. “Deadpool” is a character that he breathed life into after first sucking it out in an early form of the character.  He has also been the voice of gentle characters in animated movies and a sweet romantic partner in Rom-Coms. His voice and demeanor make the contrasting events feel more outsized without having to exaggerate every thing about the performance (ok, except for Deadpool). He has no writing credit on this film but he is a producer, and the film only moved forward when he got together with director Shawn Levy. The nice guy in the blue shirt is his persona to a tea. Hell, even when Deadpool is being a dick, he still speaks in mostly polite tones. I don’t know Jodie Comer but I thought she was just great in the two roles that she plays. Taika Waititi was fun, but not his usual oddball self, I thought this part could have been done by any number of actors, they don’t really get the best value out of having him in the film. Lil Rey Howery was funny as heck in “Get Out” and here he is funny with a little bit of heart.  


Because we know from the beginning that we are watching a video game, the elaborate visuals will seem less impressive because they are merely being used as background for the story. It’s a good looking movie, but I suspect it would be an above average looking video game, and the drama is lessened al little bit, even though the comedy is ramped up as a result. I will say this was one of the most enjoyable films I have seen in a theatre this year. It was a little deeper than I expected but it was also funnier than I had hoped. It worked out for me, my guess is that it will do the same for you. A completely satisfying dessert that also serves as the main course. 

Pick a Date.