Boy do I wish it was early June and the summer lay before us with it’s promise of long days and movie nights. This would be a destination film through June, July and August, it just feels like the perfect launch to a vacation season littered with fun films that everyone can enjoy. By the way, the film makers knew this themselves, the town in the story is Summerville. The pandemic has robbed us of that context, but that’s okay because we have another way to view this achievement. We are in the holiday season, Thanksgiving is upon us and Christmas will be not too far behind. The family gathers for the traditional dinner and then the kids want to go out and the adults want to go with them. Where can you all enjoy yourselves together? The answer is gathered in front of a big screen in your local theater taking in this welcome return to form for the “Ghostbusters” franchise.
“Ghostbusters Afterlife” is a true sequel rather than a reboot like the 2016 misfire. The events of the first two films are referenced and some of the characters that populated those two films, return for this episode. I have heard some criticism that the movie is just nostalgia product to inject in the veins of 80s junkies. If you are a fan of those 80s films, you will certainly experience a rush of emotions and warmth because of your connection to those two films, but that is not all there is to this movie and to suggest otherwise is to ignore the entertainment value presented by this movie.
McKenna Grace plays Phoebe, the granddaughter of one of the original Ghostbusters, who along with her Mother and brother, are digging through what looks like the wreck that Egon Spengler’s life had become. We don’t really know why Egon was not part of daughter Carrie Coon’s life, but we know he was involved in something in this out of the way farm community and the dilapidated house that his family has inherited. Without saying too much, let me tell you there is a direct connection between the first film and this one. The plot is connected to the Ghostbusters greatest success and there is a chance to experience some of the same problems Peter,Ray, Egon and Winston faced but in a new context with some fun new characters but also great callbacks. The recently crowned “Sexiest Man Alive”, Paul Rudd is a star of the film, but he is not the lead. Young Miss Grace is and she shoulders that responsibility exceptionally well. Phoebe is a smart girl, who is a little awkward because her interests are so deep in science. She is not a target of derision in the story, this is simply her character. She makes a friend in the new town, a kid who calls himself “Podcast” because he has a podcast. Logan Kim as the fearless, dry witted precocious Podcast has all the best lines and will delight you with his off the cuff reporting style.
As you would expect, the technical elements of the film are top notch with a very nice integration of practical camera effects along with the CGI that makes up most of the effects in films these days. The movie is full of visual call backs to the first films, the sort of thing that is refereed to as “fan service” but in this case it is entertaining on it’s own as well as providing a nostalgia bump for the aforementioned addicts. The original music cues from Elmer Bernstein are used appropriately and we have to wait for the jubilant Ray Parker Jr. Theme song, but the wait is worth the while. Marketing for this movie will have been complicated by it’s delay, the supply chain was ready two years ago but now things are a mess. That’s too bad because I really want a Slurpee cup with the characters on the side and I wish I was dropping tiny Stay Puft marshmallow men in my hot chocolate this Christmas.
There are a few story points that are not satisfactorily dealt with. The splinter between the original Ghostbusters is hard to swallow plot device, and the connection between lost Harold Ramis’ Egon and his daughter should be explained somehow, but when the resolution comes, and the new and old generation of scientists get together to fight the supernatural threats, you won’t care much about those stumbling points. Director Jason Reitman, the son of the original director Ivan Reitman, seems to care deeply about these characters and their legacy and he has done them proud. Don’t be afraid of no ghosts, go and enjoy a great piece of popular entertainment that will also remind you of how terrific it used to be to have a summer movie you could return to again and again.
Do you remember what it is that you loved about movies? Why you crave them, and savoir them and remember them for most of your life? This is one of those films that answers those questions. It takes us to another time, it plops us down in another place, and it tells a story that we didn’t know but feels so real that it could be a memory rather than a film. Kenneth Branagh has brought us that movie, and those of you who have forgotten over the years, what he is capable of should get ready to embrace the past and recognize his talent again. This is a film that will remind you that Branagh is a writer/director of enormous ability. That he has not cast himself in the film is not a reflection on the difficulty of wearing three hats on the set, but rather an acknowledgement that the talent you need should fit the story you are telling, and he knows that.
Some critics use the phrase crowd pleaser” as a pejorative, as if the audience is irrelevant to the art. There is a school of thought that embraces this kind of view and makes ambiguous, dense and unpleasant films the sort of film that deserves praise. There are times when we want to be challenged like that, but we also go to the movies to be entertained, enlightened, and have our emotions manipulated in a way that we feel grateful for. “Belfast” is that kind of picture, one that embraces the people who see it rather than sneering at them. This is a film that you walk out of feeling thankful for having seen, rather than angry about what you have seen.
Set in 1969, as the troubles in Northern Ireland are bubbling up, Belfast tells the story of a family struggling to live life in the way most of us would like life to be lived. We want neighbors who know us and help out in tough times, we want our families to be safe from bullies of all sorts, we want to enjoy the pleasures of family life that have been built by our parents, and we don’t resent the others in the neighborhood who worship differently than us or come from backgrounds dissimilar to our own. The family in this story defiantly lives the life they want in the face of political upheaval and violence. The young boy at the center of the story loves his parents and is discovering that the world does not necessarily work the way it should. There are many dramatic moments in the film that will challenge the protagonists, but in the end, it is family that trumps all and that is a good moral for a story, (as long as we are talking about a family like this).
Caitríona Balfe, Judi Dench, Jamie Dornan, Ciarán Hinds, and newcomer Jude Hill are terrific as the members of the family striving to cope with the turmoil caused by the political upheaval, economic times and personal transitions they all must face. I think Hill’s Buddy is a completely believable little boy and his relationship with his grandparents is the sentimental heart of the film. Hinds has been great in a lot of movies but his part here is more elaborate and complete then anything I have seen him in before and it is a great performance because of the connection he creates with Buddy. Dornan creates a much more interesting character here than in the Fifty Shades franchise he starred in. Caitríona Balfe plays the intransigent Ma, who loves her neighborhood almost as much as she loves her family, and is loathe to leave it when opportunities for security present themselves. She could have been unsympathetic but instead the part is written in a way to make her resistance feel honorable rather than pig headed.
The film is filled with great emotional moments, that are often reflected in the movies and TV shows that the two boys in the family share. The father is almost like Will Kane from “High Noon” or Jimmy Stewart from “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”. Buddy is motivated to be better by the prodding of his mother, the crush he has on the Catholic girl in his class, and the science fiction shows he watches on TV. If this is indeed a semi-autobiographic film, Branagh gives us some good hints as to the sorts of influences he was subjected to as a child, and they turn out to be pretty good.
If you hear any discouraging words about this film, I hope you will ignore them. It may not be perfect from the perspective a a cinema snob, but it is exactly what a mature audience with a desire to be entertained should be looking for. Don’t let any of those looking down on a middle brow film, stop you from taking in a great picture that will do wonders for both your heart and your love of movies.
So this is the third film in Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and so far, they are batting .333. Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was terrific, Black Widow was so-so, and this is warmed over leftovers from a meal that I don’t remember ordering. It’s not that it’s a bad film, it just feels like the DC Universe has rubbed off on the MCU, and that the goal of creating interconnected stories has become more important than telling a compelling story. There are ten new characters that are being put on the plate in front of us and we are supposed to care immediately? I don’t think so. This is a distinct group of superheroes, true, but unlike the X-Men, where we got a similar character dump, there is not as much popular history to ease us in, and the characters start fighting amongst themselves before we have much of an idea of how they fit into the whole picture of MCU films.
The Eternals seem to fit into the same category of human development as the monolith in 2001 A Space Odyssey. Their appearance seems to arrive to prompt civilization in ways that will make the planet and its inhabitants more useful to the universe. Early on however, there is an indicator of a hidden agenda, and after an hour or so of trying to get us familiar with these characters, we are let in on their true purpose and one can legitimately wonder where this idea came from. Part of the plot focuses on the creation of Celestials, who are certainly different creatures as illustrated by “Ego” from “Guardians of the Galaxy V.2” . The brief history we are given here is designed to hide some of the surprises that are instore for the film, but they end up becoming confusing and seem inconsistent with prior knowledge and even things brought up for the first time in this story.
The Ten new characters are supposed to fight Deviants, who are depicted as mindless animals early on but for some reason develop an ethos later in the film that legitimately, provokes some philosophical conversation. That conundrum though is quickly overtaken by a sudden change of heart by the leader of the Earthbound Eternals, Salma Hayek’s Ajak. I say it is a sudden turn despite the fact it takes place over a 7000 year period, because in the context of what we learn about the Eternals origins, that is a blink of an eye. For a group of heroes, who supposedly think of themselves as a family, I would say they are a dysfunctional family. There are resentments, jealousy, and apparent psychological trauma in this group. The only time they seem to cooperate is when a Deviant is in the immediate vicinity. The big threat of the story therefore ends up coming primarily from the group itself, rather than an outside force. We seem to have jumped right into “Civil War” without the preceding dozen films that it took for The Avengers to get to. Richard Madden and Gemma Chan as Ikaris and Sersi, are a couple who end up on opposite sides of the dilemma, and it seems completely real that they have broken up as a couple, although there is no hint that this was the reason.
Clearly the intent of the film makers was to create a team of heroes that is as inclusive as possible. There is a great degree of diversity among the Eternals, but some of it is a little confusing given what we ultimately learn about their origins. There are some interesting ideas in the story that will not get the attention they deserve because there are so many characters. The character of Sprite is eternally pre pubescent, but 7,000 years of life have given her feelings that are not resolvable given her physical development. The emotional choice that she makes seems to be natural, but like everyone else in the story it doesn’t last long. Kumail Nanjiani is a hoot as Kingo, but when the climax comes, he is no where to be found. I enjoyed Ma Dong-seok as Gilgamesh, the keeper of the nearly mad Thena played by Angelina Jolie. Their relationship is more touching and believable than any of the others in the film, and that is another problem, Jolie is under utilized and the character of Gilgamesh is not on screen for most of the second half of the film. Brian Tyree Henry as Phastos is supposed to have the sarcastic wit in the film, but it feels way more labored than his work in Godzilla v. Kong, and that is saying something. The Ikea joke falls flat and that was supposed to be the big punchline that they used in the trailer.
There is a mid-credit scene and a scene after the credits, so the MCU fans will have plenty to speculate on, but they have nothing to do with what we saw and they raise some questions about the relationships we have seen in earlier MCU films. Maybe this will be an extension of themes covered in the comic books, but it is an example of overload in the film. I’m writing this a couple of days after seeing the movie and my memory of the events is already fading. This is a movie intended to launch the new characters in the MCU but it does not do it in a way that is very inspiring. I love the series of films and I want them to grow, but somewhere along the way, the spectacle overwhelmed the characters and stories and that is a problem. Maybe it’s just me, my favorite MCU films have been Iron Man, Captain America: The First Avenger and Ant-Man, which were all stand alone stories, so the team up concept takes some time getting used to. James Gunn managed to pull it off with Guardians but director Chloé Zhao, seems like she may have bitten off too big a chunk to have the same result.
As I said, I did not dislike the movie, I just didn’t like it very much. Like all things, maybe it will grow on me, but for now that’s where I stand.
A nostalgia soaked horror film from director Edgar Wright is just what we need for this Halloween Weekend, but does it satisfy? My companion for this film was invested in the first two thirds of the movie so much that it rivaled other films of Wright’s for praise, but,there is a turn and a series of actions that happen in the film that stopped her embrace of the film in mid-hug and resulted in a display of invective that I marveled at for a hour. While I did not have the same negative reaction, I did feel the film fall from greatness to mediocrity in the third act. Regardless of it’s ultimate faults, there is still much to recommend for this interesting addition to Wright’s filmography.
I avoid as much as possible, simply recapping the story in these posts, but sometimes you need a little context and this is one of those times. Thomasin McKenzie plays Eloise, a slightly off center girl from a countryside community, who longs to become a fashion designer. Ellie is the kind of kid who is willing to go out in public in clothes she has designed, but she has yet to develop the thick skin needed to deflect the catty comments of schoolmates, who in a two faced manner praise her bravery, but secretly despise her and are jealous of the attention she will generate. Her mother also was interested in the industry but took her life ten years earlier, and Ellie has visions of her Mom on a regular basis. Eloise soaks herself in 60s nostalgia, because that’s the style her Mother and Grandmother knew so well. Peter and Gordon, Dusty Springfield and Petula Clark ring in her head as she moves to London to attend a college of fashion design. When her wold collides with the hipster bitch she is roommates with, she decides to take a flat in a nearby neighborhood and suddenly the distance between the world she lives in and the era of her dreams begins to diminish. New visions of a girl not unlike herself, striving to make it into the pop world as a singer in 1965, fill Eloise’s nights and she gets caught up in another life in a different era, with outcomes much more grim than she is prepared to face.
The 1960s settings are nicely staged with appropriate production details. I especially liked the giant “Thunderball” Poster on the cinema, as well as the stylish women’s fashions of the time. The two nightclubs that Eloise sees in her visions are also startlingly beautiful in a retro way. The most beautiful thing she encounters however is Sandie, the girl aspiring to be a singer who is a near doppelganger for Eloise and who is played by Ana Taylor-Joy. Wright uses some marvelous camera tricks and clever choreography to meld the two girls from fifty years apart into one character that we see at a time, although both are present. This is a horror story in the long run, and the events in the 1960s should be enough to make us pull back in terror at what can become of a girl trying to make it in a world filled with sharks dressed as men. The first part of Sandie’s story is plenty horrifying without having to elaborate too much with blood and viscera. Like all horror stories these days, there has to be a twist and this is where things start to go off the rails a bit.
Eloise’s obsession is turning dangerous and she has difficulty separating her visions from her real life. There is a character set up to tie the two eras together in the real world, and naturally, this is one of the places where Wright has to cheat a bit to get in the surprise that he has in store for us. If you are turned off by characters in horror stories doing illogical things and making unsubstantiated assumptions, then you will start to feel the resentment that I referred to in the opening of this piece. Somewhere out there, a young adult woman would ask some questions that all of us could see might be relevant, not Ellie. She pursues an investigation but she ignores a key term in her search that is sitting right in front of her. The explanation that her nightmarish visions begin to follow her is the best cover that can explain why she acts the way she does, but that seems inadequate and it ignores a lot of options that she had available to her. After successfully creating a real world heroine in Eloise, who can perceive a threat from an otherwise chipper cab driver, you want to scream at her for not looking more closely at the red herring in front of her and the obvious connection to the past that she occupies every night.
At this point, the movie turns into a conventional piece of cinema horror trickery, which uses the distractions of another historical era to misdirect us while the heavy footed plot twist plays out. If you can ignore those irritating moments of character stupidity, then the follow through will be satisfying enough. I for the most part went along with it because I want the magic trick to work. The fact that I noticed the trick movement did not rob me of all the pleasure I’d already had from the film, but those missteps will bother a lot of people more than me. McKenzie and Taylor-Joy are both excellent. They create a real sense of the enthusiasms for a bygone time and watching them revel in the fashion, dance and music of the era is a pleasure. Diana Rigg makes her final screen appearance in this film in a role that is more substantial than you might have expected. The film also features Terrance Stamp who has been menacing and charming and revolting in movies for sixty years now. Stamp gets to show his persona with just a few scenes and some great close ups on his face. Wright gets the most out of the camera and lighting when he is looking at Stamp’s character. It is too bad that this effort gets wasted as a plot device rather than an essential plot component.
Edgar Wright has a number of films to his credit that I have loved. His sense of humor is terrific and he has an editors eye as a director, he is capable of creating a scene in our mind that works because he knows how long the shot should last and where to cut it and what kinds of transitions to make. As a storyteller, he has taken some sharp left turns over the years that work, but maybe that is because of the genre he was working in. The tone shift and plot twist in “Last Night in Soho” don’t hold together as well as the work he has done before. I would still recommend the movie, but if you get whiplash from third act character actions, don’t say I did not warn you.
No one will be surprised to discover that the latest film from Wes Anderson is odd. In fact the very definition of quirky in the dictionary uses Wes Anderson as an example to clarify for us what quirky is. The idiosyncratic film maker is back with a movie that relies less on plot than on visual storytelling. That is not to say that there is not also dialogue, because that is equally as important to the visual, but also equally less relevant to the plot. A Wes Anderson film is an immersive cinema experience, but your tolerance of odd will be in direct proportion for your acceptance of this movie.
Unlike his previous two films, “Isle of Dogs” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel“, this film goes out of it’s way to ignore plot and embrace instead the compelling nature of language and art to make us want to follow what is going on. The outcome of any of the stories being told here is superfluous to the enjoyment we are to experience from hearing and seeing them. When writing a review of a film, I am always careful to avoid spoilers, that is completely unnecessary here because the plots are mostly meaningless and they meander around the odd characters and locales without really taking us anywhere.
This film is a set of anthologies that are held together by a conceit that is appropriate for the form of stories we are seeing. We are being presented with a tribute to writers who might have been elegant in their language and story construction, but who were mostly consumed for the pleasure of the way they write rather than the importance of the subjects that they wrote about. If you are the kind of person who picks up the New Yorker, to explore unusual slants on culture, or you read Bon Appetite, for the pleasure of preparation and the challenge of imagining taste through only words, then this movie will probably reach you. With an obituary and a brief travel prelude, to set up how everything here is connected, we move to three different stories focusing on art, politics and cooking.
The actors are all employing a deadpan, dry, style of delivery which is typical of an Anderson film. A smile would be a justification to re-shoot the scene. If an actual human emotion appears, it would undermine the atmosphere of the production and frustrate the director. He does want us to laugh, but only in regards to the absurdity of the characters of the situation, not because we are invested in anyone. We need to take pleasure in the intricate production design, or the clever Rube Goldberg physical elements. Viewers can be stimulated by the color palate or the editing or the miniatures that make up so much of the scenery, but you should not care about a single character in this story, what you should do is listen to them talk. While many of the things they say are absurd, it is the way that they say them that is amusing. Adjectives abound and sentences turn on themselves, but always with a degree of attention to grammar that draws attention to itself. You could easily enjoy just listening to the snappy dialogue, delivered in a sardonic tone, and forgo the visuals. Conversely, you could watch this film unfold with just a musical score and be equally entertained. This is a film where content is unnecessary, style is what you want.
I can’t be more direct than to say this, if you do not care for Wes Anderson style films, this may be the most obnoxious film you encounter this year, it is the most like his films of any of his films I have seen. (I think he could use that last phrase in one of his movies). You will not be won over by this film. If you like the style of his movies, well that is all that this film has going for it. I’m not sure there are many who will want to explain why the plot doesn’t matter, they will be too caught up with the trees to pay any attention to the forest.
I looked it up to see how it came out, Ridley Scott has directed 26 feature films, including some classics that are award worthy, and some that have been left on the curb to be disposed of. I have seen 18 of those films, so I am pretty familiar with his work, and frankly I am a fan. This movie came up and I had not heard anything about it in the production process. He has a second film that is coming in a couple of weeks that will no doubt get a lot of awards potential due to the cast. “The Last Duel” ought to have the same sort of cache because it’s cast is nothing to sneeze at, but I think because this is a Twentieth Century Films release, which means it was one of a handful of movies the Disney Company acquired when it bought 20th Century Fox, it feels like it is an unwanted child. Little P.R., no Oscar talk and it is disappearing from theaters rapidly (look for it on Disney + any time now.
As it turns out, this film does not stack up to Scott’s best work, but it is not down at the bottom with “Exodus: Gods and Kings”, or “the Counselor”, neither of which I have bothered with since I never saw a single recommendation for either. “The Last Duel” is a very well made film, it looks great, it contains some great action sequences, and the story is intriguing. The problems with the film have mostly to do with pacing and story structure, which may be partially the fault of two of the films stars since they co-wrote the script. Ben Affleck and Matt Damon have collaborated with Nicole Holofcener to bring this story, based on a book which is based on an historical incident, to the screen. Like a medieval “Rashomon”, “the Last Duel” gives us different perspectives on the same event, each one favoring the person at the center of that section. So one of the problems is that we are seeing the events again, already knowing large amounts of information that are not going to change. The smaller changes, in tone and character probably needed to be emphasized in shorter segments because the length of each of these chapters is tedious. The film runs two and a half hours and unfortunately, that run time is noticeable.
Maybe this was an attempt by Affleck and Damon to answer critics who wondered how they could have worked with Harvey Weinstein and not noticed his reprehensible behavior. As a #MeToo story, Jodie Comer plays a woman who claims to have been sexually assaulted, but in a society that treats marriage as an economic contract and the wife as property, her needs in this situation seem to be the least important. Sir Jean de Carrouges (Damon), has plenty of reasons to have animosity toward his former friend and warrior, Jacques Le Gris, played by Adam Driver. While not the most sympathetic of husbands, he engages in a strategy to clear his wife of fabricating the story and also exacting revenge on his opponent. Driver’s character on the other hand is supposedly shown in the most favorable light in his segment of the film, and Le Gris, still comes off as a cad, deserving of the dirtying of his name that he objects to. Marguerite de Carrouges (Comer) is trapped as a pawn for the most part in a misogynistic society that treats women as suspect simply for being women. The questions that get asked in the inquiry are humiliating and the “science” accepted at that time makes the process even worse for her. There is also a clear stigmatization of women as sexual beings, despite their sexuality being critical to the purpose of marriage which was to prove heirs. In a nod to some of the hypocrisy we see in the #MeToo movement of today, women are just as capable as men of bending events to their prejudices. Marguerite cannot even count on her best friend.
All of the soap opera and segments of battle and political intrigue that took place in the first two hours is largely there to set up the climatic title moment. Scott is in his element here, having made “Gladiator” as well as “Robin Hood” and “Kingdom of Heaven”, he knows his way around brutal one on one combat. Damon and Driver go at each other both mounted and unmounted . There are staves, axes, swords, daggers, gauntlets and assorted blood sweat and tears in the arena. All the while, we are reminded of the stakes because they are sitting right there, waiting to burn under the woman in question if the combat goes the wrong way for her. This actual historical event is the last recorded case of trial by combat to determine who is the just party. Since I did no background research before seeing the film, and I did not know the outcome, that probably added to the impact the combat sequence had on me.
So I suspect this film will soon be forgotten, but it does have some strong elements to recommend it. Affleck plays a conniving count who uses political power to protect his prized friendships, Damon builds more action hero cred with his battle scenes, Driver gets to be tall, dark, and handsome, but Jodie Comer is the one who emerges with the most credibility after our two and a half hours spent on this arcane event.
Just finishing up one of the screenings I did this last week with a very brief recap of “The Silence of the Lambs”. This was a 30th Anniversary screening of one of the most widely acclaimed films to ever win the Academy Award. The movie is virtually perfect in every respect. The story is set up dramatically, introducing us to all the characters in an interesting way. The horror aspect of Buffalo Bill is awful but when you layer on the sense of dread that comes with the introduction of Hannibal Lecter, the tension is almost unbearable.
Director Johnathan Demme managed to make the flashbacks to Clarice’s childhood relevant, and the screenplay allows her to tell the story that accounts for the title instead of trying to put it on screen. The dynamic between Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins in their scenes is mesmerizing. Even though that is where the meat of the drama is, there are so many other scenes and characters that keep us in the story when those two are not front and center. Lecter and Dr. Chilton are opposites in personality, and the actors manage to make a loathsome killer fell less awful than the unctuous “turnkey” that Chilton doesn’t want to be labeled as.
Someday I will do a post on the career performances of one of the great actors who has never been celebrated for his craft in the manner that he deserves. Scott Glenn as Jack Crawford makes the academic, older mentor fell real, when just a year before he was a dynamic, take charge sub commander in the”Hunt for Red October”. He was always a strong third leg on a tripod of performances, but he seems to be outshined by the other posts that make up the tripods of his films. Ted Levine will forever be remembered for the brave performance that he gave which made us fear the transformation that Buffalo Bill was attempting. I did a post on the music from this movie a few years ago and I just need to add that it keeps all the moments in the film engaging. The escape sequence in particular but the very quiet ending of the film works so much more effectively because of the subdued tones of Howard Shore.
Simply trying to acknowledge that I saw the film for probably the thirtieth time, but once again on the big screen. Thank you TCM and Fathom.
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 …
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.
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.