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. 

Moonlight

This is a film that I was driven to see entirely because of the reviews, word of mouth and buzz surrounding it. The subject matter is so out of my wheelhouse as to be in another city not just in another neighborhood. It’s not that I am uninterested in stories about diverse cultures, but drug dealing and homosexuality seem like an odd mix, and the last time they were in a film I remember seeing was “Less than Zero”, which involved white suburbanites from economically well to do families, and I did not care for it almost thirty years ago, how would a much older and more cynical man be able to appreciate this?  As it turns out, pretty well. I can certainly admire the movie and I think I have found themes in the film that were there for us to discover, but I may have brought some of my own along with me.

For anyone unfamiliar with the title, it is a three part story chronicling the life a boy who grows to adulthood, with a lengthy stop over in adolescence. As a child, Chiron, is known as “Little” and his story starts when he encounters a man who becomes a mentor/savior/role-model. The curveball the film throws at us is that man is a drug dealer. Juan, is maybe the most sympathetic character in the whole film, but he is not a perfect person and if we can’t believe his story, nothing else in the movie will make any sense. Mahershala Ali is an actor I’m sure I have encountered in other projects, but never in a role as memorable for me at least as this. He is hard in the ways you expect someone in that profession is likely to be, but he manages to be a three dimensional person and not just a stereotype. One of the themes that I get from the film is that we all need to think about who people are and not just what they are. Juan takes an interest in Little almost by accident, but he sees some of himself in the child. His open minded acceptance of what Little might become seems at odds with the thug culture that is usually shown to us in movies, and it is that perspective that makes the film valuable. Even though Juan only exists in the first third of the movie, we will feel his presence for the rest of the story.

Little is put upon by school mates and his own mother, an excellent Naomi Harris. The harm that the drug culture can do to people who are not the users themselves will be evident to everyone. People who think it is a victim-less crime have never lived with or loved an addict.  Even at a young age, while his Mom appears to be holding it together, Little senses that something in his life is wrong. When your only role model is a compassionate man who also happens to deal death and misery to weak souls, you are bound to be conflicted. This whole film is a character study that plays out as if it were a stage drama. The pacing and dialogue feel thoughtful and deliberate, in a way that is almost antithetical to modern films. There is nothing in the film except one scene that could not be told on the stage. The framing of the characters and the use of the camera is not startling or inventive but it is efficient in focusing on the characters. The one sequence that would be difficult to do on stage however is a pivotal one that has implications in the rest of the film. Juan teaches Little to swim in the ocean when they visit the beach. It is a moment that is freeing to our main character, and it is the start of his realization that he can be many things, some of which he has not imagined yet.

Another example of the stagebound nature of the story is the use of three acts and the black screen transitions between the sections. Even though there are subtitles that identify our character by different names at each stage of his life, the numbering that accompanies those names just reminds us that this is a signpost for the next stage of the story. The middle section concerns the life of Chiron in high school. He is a quiet kid who is bullied primarily because he is seen as soft. Kids “gaydar” becomes a justification for petty humiliations and brutal shows of  machismo. Chiron had one friend other than Juan as a kid. Kevin is a bit of a nonconformist, who helps Chiron manage the world on occasion. Kevin however has his own weaknesses and those become devastating in multiple ways on his friend. This is the second major relationship of the three segments and it is the one that grows the most over Chiron’s life story. This is a movie that tries very hard to tell an authentic story about troubled youth without simply imposing a cultural stereotype in for the purpose of diversity. These characters, as unfamiliar to someone from such a different background as I, feel organic. This is a genuine story of a culture not a fable tailored to an ethnic group. That is the thing that I most appreciated about the movie.

The actors who portray the two growing boys throughout the lifespan of the film do a tremendous job creating personality for their characters. The three who portray Kevin move him from a light hearted second banana to a central figure in the life of his friend. The serious portrayal in the last sections necessary to sell the denouement of those characters arcs. Chiron, now known as Black, is portrayed by a man who clearly has devoted serious time to sculpting his body. The desire on the part of the character to redefine himself simply means that he molds himself into the most accessible form from his life experience. The physical differences are dramatic but the personality ticks and non-verbal references are all consistent which makes the transformation seem real again.

This is a very good character piece that is well acted and performed. The direction does emphasize the staginess of some of the conflict, but it never detracts from the story. We  can all learn to be a little more patient and thoughtful about the people we encounter or even simply read about if we take the time to see films like this. I can’t say it is one of my favorites, simply because as interesting as it was the first time, I don’t think it will hold the same level of fascination for me at least on subsequent viewings. There is much to admire in the film, but not much to love. It will earn and deserve many accolades, but I’m afraid that it will simply be a part of my movie history, rather than a defining point in that history. That’s just my take, some of you will be able to take away more.