SPECTRE (2015)

November 8, 2015

spectre Greetings again from the darkness. Don’t come to me looking for objective judgment on Bond. By the time we hear that familiar opening trumpet blast of Marty Norman’s Bond theme, I’ve already been swept away into the land of MI6 enchantment – gadgets, cars, women, over-the-top stunts, globe-trotting, global villains and quintessential coolness. And it doesn’t help that this time director Sam Mendes treats this 24th (official) Bond film as an homage to those that came before. At times it plays like a tribute – and maybe even a closing chapter (for Mendes and Daniel Craig?).

A long tracking shot drops us into the Day of the Dead festival in Mexico, complete with skeleton masks and giant parade props. We follow a masked couple as they maneuver through the crowd and into their hotel room, where 007 quickly leaps out the window and makes his way across roof tops towards his mission. It’s one of the more visually stimulating and explosive openings in franchise history.

The story combines the personal back-story of Bond’s childhood with his relentless pursuit of the evil empire known as Spectre … the crime syndicate that has been part of the Bond universe for many years and films. The tie-in to the iconic Bond nemesis Blofeld, this new mastermind Franz Oberhauser, and Bond’s adoptive family make for an interesting chain of custody. However, as is customary, it’s the characters and action sequences that deliver the entertainment bang.

Oberhauser is played by Christoph Waltz (understated given his track record), and the two Bond “ladies” are played by Lea Seydoux (the daughter of Mr. White, and the key to finding Spectre), and Monica Bellucci (the widow of Bond’s Mexico victim). Mr. Waltz takes advantage of his limited screen time, while Ms. Bellucci is limited to a few lines and a chance to model some lingerie. Reprising their roles are Rory Kinnear as Tanner, Ralph Fiennes as M, Naomie Harris as Moneypenny, Ben Whishaw as Q, and Jesper Christensen as Mr. White. New to the mix is Dave Bautista as Hinx (in the mode of Oddjob and Jaws), and Andrew Scott as C … the latest of those trying to shut down the “00” program. Whishaw brings a nice element to his role, while Bautista’s Hinx gets to participate in both a car chase and train fight … while uttering only a single word of dialogue.

The evil doers have gotten more intellectual over the years, and Oberhauser and Spectre have the goal of global surveillance and controlling information and data. It’s a modern theme for a Bond film that also seems intent on reminiscing. There are nods to most (if not every) previous Bond film via (among other things) Nehru jackets, cats, scars, and a white dinner jacket. And it’s nice to see the gun barrel sequence back in the opening credits where it belongs. As for the new song, Sam Smith has a very nice voice, but his Bond song lacks the punch of the best.

In terms of globe-trotting, we get Mexico, Rome, Tangier (Morocco), London and Austria. The (prolonged) car chase occurs on the deserted streets (and steps) of Rome and features two stunning cars – Aston Martin DB10 and Jaguar C-X75. In addition to the cars and previously mentioned train, it’s helicopters that earned a couple of worthy action sequences.

It’s Daniel Craig’s fourth turn as Bond, James Bond. He brings his own brand of emotion and cheekiness, while also possessing a physicality that allows the action sequences to work. He has made the role his, much like Christian Bale took ownership of Batman. For those who refuse to accept the new generation, director Mendes delivers enough nostalgia that even the old-timers should be entertained.

R.I.P. Derek Watkins

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE KEY (2015)

October 8, 2015

key Greetings again from the darkness. Novelist Jurichiro Tanizaki was nominated for Nobel in Literature, and is one of the more revered modern era writers from Japan. His 1955 novel “Kagi” is the source for this direct-to-video effort from director Jefery Levy, as well as a 1983 film version from Italian director Tinto Brass. Mr. Levy’s production is some sort of experimental film approach that employs the LSD effect utilized by so many movies … only this one isn’t based in the 1960’s and the trippy drug plays absolutely no role here.

Jack (David Arquette) and Ida (Bai Ling) have been married 16 years, and have for the most part, ceased to communicate. This void especially bothers Jack as it pertains to their sex life. He is so focused on this aspect that he commits to writing down all his feelings on this topic in his diary. We learn this because he tells us. Narration is key to the film … well that and the headache-inducing strobe edits and combination lighting-color-texture used to bring the diary entries to life.

One day Jack leaves the key to his desk drawer out so that Ida has full access to his diary, and his deepest thoughts. She refuses to read it, and instead decides to start her own diary. These two are not so creative when it comes to tormenting each other … though they go to great lengths to avoid a conversation.

Somehow, despite the lack of a plot, the obnoxious strobe-lighting, the never-ending nudity, and the droning narration, Bai Ling manages to stand out in her role. For one thing, she is an infinitely better narrator than Mr. Arquette, but more importantly, she seizes the few opportunities to bring some depth and humanity to her character.

It’s a story of frustration, obsession, questionable sexual habits, and the price paid for an absence of communication. The dreamlike visuals and the incessant narration never allow us to really connect with either character … even with the Charlie Chaplin bits performed by Ms. Ling. The film might be worth exploring from a technical aspect, but the less-than-graceful translation of the novel makes this a tough one to watch, or even to understand who its audience might be.

watch the trailer:

 

 


SICARIO (2015)

September 24, 2015

sicario Greetings again from the darkness. Really good thrillers – the kind that make our palms sweat and cause us to forget to blink – are increasingly rare in the world of cinema these days. Writer Taylor Sheridan’s script doesn’t choose the good guys, but instead highlights the terror and lack of rules and morality that guide the border wars and drug cartels. It turns out the border isn’t the only line being crossed. Director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Incendies) elevates Sheridan’s excellent script further with a strong cast and some outstanding camera work from the best Director of Photography working today, Roger Deakins.

The opening sequence is about as tense as anything we could ever hope for on screen, and it introduces us to FBI Agent Kate Macer, played by Emily Blunt. We soon learn Kate is a focused and dedicated tactical expert, who also happens to be idealistic enough to believe the raids conducted by her team are making a difference … at least until this belief is later challenged.

Kate quickly finds herself “volunteering” for a special task force with muddled goals, uncertain tactics, and secretive leadership. Josh Brolin plays Matt, the leader of the team. He charms his way through answering Kate’s questions without offering any substantive intel. When asked about the mission objective, Matt responds with “to create chaos” and a smirk. Adding to her confusion and wariness is the mysterious “consultant” Alejandro (the “hitman” of the title) played by Benecio Del Toro. Part of the brilliance of the script is that everyone seems to know what’s happening except Kate and us (the viewers)!  Our understanding comes through the slow-drip method and keeps us fully engaged.

Similarities to both Zero Dark Thirty and Apocalypse Now struck me as the film progressed, but the sheer number of stress-inducing sequences set this apart as something different. A family dinner with a drug lord is one of the more fascinating and tension-packed scenes of the year. The moral complexity is thought-provoking, and the abundance of corruption and politics in relation to the cartels and war on drugs, leave us wondering not just whether this war can be won, but through what methods is it being fought.

Welcome to Juarez”, says Alejandro, as the SUV motorcade makes its way past the remnants of a brutal crime scene. Although there are some tremendous sequences of tactical raids (and the best traffic jam you’ve seen), this should not be labeled as an action film … it’s so much more. Ms. Blunt’s character is the conscience of the film, but it’s Brolin’s Matt that makes us curious as to his background and motivation. And as interesting as are those two characters, they pale in comparison to Benecio’s man on a mission. Del Toro doesn’t act frequently, but he possesses the gift that has him dominating the screen … forcing our eyes to follow his every movement. Rumors have a prequel in the works that will focus on Alejandro’s roots. It’s the “land of wolves”, and Alejandro is an alpha.

Lastly, it must be stated that the film is a technical treat. The unique score from Johann Johannsson is never overbearing, and often mimics our pounding hearts. It’s worth taking note. Best of all is the work of the great Roger Deakins. His photography is astounding and this could be his best work yet. The desert landscapes are just as crucial as the claustrophobic raids or the impromptu strategy sessions, and Deakins puts us right where we need to be. As a companion piece to this excellent film, I would recommend Matthew Heineman’s extraordinary documentary from earlier this year, Cartel Land.

watch the trailer:

 

 


A CHRISTMAS STORY: THE MUSICAL (Theater review, 2014)

December 9, 2014

** Theater review – this site is normally reserved for movies, but since the touring stage musical of one of my favorite movies is playing in Dallas, it seems like a good fit.

a christmas story musical Bob Clark’s 1983 film based on Jean Shepherd’s novel “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash” has become a precious Christmas tradition not just for my family, but also countless others. The Broadway musical received three Tony nominations in 2013 (including Best Musical) and when the touring production was announced as part of the Dallas Summer Musicals 75th season lineup, it was certain to become one of its most popular.

What a joy to watch the pre-show sea of smiling ticketholders jostling to have their picture taken with a glass case display in the theatre lobby. The featured attraction was one of three original “leg lamps” used in the movie … direct from the private collection of Dallas Summer Musicals President and Managing Director Michael Jenkins. This set the mood for a most delightful presentation of a familiar story presented in a manner most of us had not previously experienced.

A film-to-stage adaptation is made more challenging when transitioned into a musical format. The music and lyrics were written for Broadway by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and the songs bring a nice, upbeat touch without disturbing the flow of the story. Chris Carsten plays the Jean Shepherd role, and instead of an unseen movie narrator, he is an active stage participant intertwined through many scenes. With a voice more reminiscent of Brian Doyle Murray than Jean Shepherd, it takes awhile for us to adjust, but Carsten’s animated descriptions are a real asset to the production.

Of course we all know what really matters … Ralphie Parker and the outrageous situations he and his family find themselves. For this show, Ralphie was played by Evan Gray (rotating shows with Coulten Maurer), and his slightly clumsy movements were effective for the comedy moments, and his singing voice was sufficient and consistent throughout the show. Christopher Swan as The Old Man sounded remarkably similar to Darren McGavin at times, while Cal Alexander was spot on as little Randy, especially when screaming “I can’t get up!” in a very popular scene. Susannah Jones was a real standout as The Mother, and her beautiful and soothing singing voice perfectly complemented the sweet demeanor necessary for the role.

The musical numbers benefited from a very talented group of youngsters, and the fact that the songs helped push along the story. The “A Major Award” song and dance sequence seemed to last a couple minutes longer than necessary, and that was probably because it was missing kids through most of it. Miss Shields (played wonderfully by Avital Asuleen) had an explosive and slightly seductive dance that was a bit uncomfortable to watch given the close proximity of the kids, but it was quickly forgiven as the “On Santa’s Lap” portion was colorful and lively and hilarious.

Somehow, most of the iconic moments were captured on stage: the pink bunny pj’s, the triple dog dare on the playground, Higbee’s display window, the furnace battle, Scut Farkus, and of course the leg lamp/major award. The Chinese restaurant scene is a bit awkward these days and probably should be re-written to avoid the racist tone, but we were treated to live bloodhounds romping across the stage as the Bumpus pups, and the presence of the Red Ryder Carbine-Action 200 shot Range Model with a compass in the stock kept Ralphie’s dream alive.

Matt Lenz takes over the direction from Broadway’s John Rando, and Jordan Sparks handles Warren Carlyle’s crisp choreography. The orchestra performed well throughout, and a couple of the kids were exceptional in their tap solos. At the core of the story, and what allows so many to connect, is the nostalgia associated with simpler times and life as a kid combined with the heartfelt emotions that go with being a parent. It seems we all dream of a major award, but what we really want is for our family to be happy … and that’s true whether on a movie screen or through singing on a theatrical stage. HO-HO-HO!!

If you want more information on Dallas Summer Musicals, visit: http://www.dallassummermusicals.org/

 


JAMES GARNER remembered (link to comments)

July 20, 2014

A glitch this morning prevented the “JAMES GARNER remembered” post from being emailed to subscribers.  Here is the link to the comments I posted:

https://moviereviewsfromthedark.com/2014/07/20/james-garner-remembered/

**If you received the first posting, I apologize for the duplication


YOJIMBO (Japan, 1961)

December 31, 2013

yojimbo Greetings again from the darkness. Yojimbo translates to “bodyguard”, but do not make the mistake of comparing it to the 1992 sappy mess The Bodyguard (Kevin Costner, Whitney Houston). This is one of the finest Japanese films ever made, directed by arguably the greatest Japanese director (Akira Kurosawa), and starring one of the top Japanese actors (Toshiro Mifune). It also served as the inspiration for Sergio Leone’s classic 1964 western, A Fistful of Dollars (with Clint Eastwood).

Based in 1860, we meet the unemployed ronin/samurai (Mifune) wandering the countryside allowing a tossed tree branch to determine the direction of his path. It leads him to a town where the ominous first visual is a dog carrying a human hand in his mouth. We realize this isn’t going to be the most welcoming of towns.

The town is controlled by rival factions: the Silk merchant versus the Sake brewer. They represent crime lords Seibel and Ushitora, respectively (think modern day bloods vs crips). Our clever ronin decides to play both sides against the middle and ends up hired as a bodyguard by BOTH gangs. As you can imagine, this leads to real problems for all involved.

yojimbo2 The psychology of (corrupt) power and fear is in play here, as is some dark humor (the coffin maker). The biggest clash comes with Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai), who proudly carries the town’s only pistol. He certainly enjoys (and abuses) the respect and power that comes with that handgun. The samurai are trained to be loyal at any cost, and it’s quite interesting to see our protagonist adapt to the self-preservation required in his new world.

Masaru Sato delivers a very unique score – one quite unusual for the samurai genre. Toshiro Mifune (pictured left) has one of the great faces in cinematic history, and Kurosawa is in prime form. This is definitely one to see if you enjoy the best films from all countries.  Other must see Kurosawa films include: Rashomon (1950), Seven Samurai (1954), Kagemusha (1980), and Ran (1985).  It should also be noted that Kurosawa directed a comedic sequel to Yojimbo called Sanjuro (1962). The sequel also starred Mifune.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WzFq5hOlZ5s


JAMES GANDOLFINI remembered

June 20, 2013

gandolfini Last evening brought the startling news that James Gandolfini had passed from a sudden heart attack.  It happened while on vacation in Rome with his teenage son, who found him.  The legacy of  Gandolfini is safe thanks to his role as Tony Soprano in HBO’s ground-breaking series “The Sopranos“, but we movie fans know him for so much more. He was a fabulous movie actor both in lead roles (Welcome to the Riley’s) and supporting ones (The Coen Brothers’ The Man Who Knew Too Much, In The Loop, and Killing Me Softly).  He was beloved and respected by those within the industry, and he once laughed off the idea that he might be like Tony Soprano.  His response … a proclaimation that he is more like “a 260 pound Woody Allen“.

The controversial final episode of “The Sopranos” was filmed at a New Jersey Ice Cream parlor called Holsteins.  Fans gathered last night, and in a touching tribute, the booth where Tony and his family sat in that final scene was marked with a “reserved” sign.

Here is a 2 minute video showing some of Mr. Gandolfini’s work:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vEyhCZK2jJM&feature=youtu.be