NO TIME TO DIE (2021)

October 10, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Bond 25 is here, and it’s quite a curtain call for actor Daniel Craig. The film’s release has been postponed numerous times since September 2019, which has caused expectations and anxiety to build amongst Bond fans. It’s been almost six years since SPECTRE (2015), and this is Daniel Craig’s fifth and final turn as 007. This production faced challenges even before the pandemic hit. Cary Joji Fukunaga (best known for “True Detective” and BEASTS OF NO NATION, 2015) was hired to direct after Danny Boyle stepped down (or whatever happened), and Phoebe Waller-Bridge was brought in to spice up the dialogue on the script from Fukunaga, Neal Purvis, and Robert Wade (the latter two having been involved in writing all five Bond movies for Craig). Of course, it’s Ian Fleming to whom we stand eternally grateful for the original characters.

For those accustomed to the James Bond cinematic formula, you’ll notice quite a few differences – beginning with the opening scenes. Traditionally, breathtaking action kicks off the film; but this time a shift in tone and style serves up a tension-filled opening that occurs a few years prior to the rest of the story. It takes a few minutes before we get the first true action sequence. Of course, we must keep in mind that we are dealing with a “retired” James Bond (don’t worry, it’s not like “fat Thor”) … in fact, there’s already a replacement 007 and she (Lashana Lynch, CAPTAIN MARVEL, 2019) packs quite an attitude and skill set.

It’s his old CIA buddy, Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), who draws Bond back into the espionage game, and of course, the reason is to save the world (what else could it be?). This year’s world-domination-seeking villain is the cleverly named Lyutsifer Safin, and he’s played by Oscar winner Rami Malek (BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY, 2018). Safin is a low-key baddie whose weapon is a DNA-altering chemical that’s probably a bit overly complex for a Bond movie, and it’s also a bit strange that Safin/Malek only has a few substantive scenes. For those who saw SPECTRE, you’ll recognize many of the faces, including Lea Seydoux as Madeleine Swann, Ralph Fiennes as M, Ben Whishaw as Q, Rory Kinnear as Tanner, and Naomie Harris as Moneypenny. Also back for a terrific scene is Oscar winner Christoph Waltz as Blofield. The new faces include the aforementioned Lashana Lynch as Nomi, Billy Magnusson as Logan Ash, and Craig’s KNIVES OUT co-star Ana de Armas as Paloma. Ms. de Armas brings a jolt of energy and some smiles to the proceedings, and it’s a shame her appearance is so short.

It’s unusual for a Bond song to win its Grammy before the movie is ever released, but that’s exactly what happened for Billie Eilish’s achingly somber title song. Oscar winner Hans Zimmer (THE LION KIING) delivers a wonderful score in his first Bond outing (you’ll hear how he incorporates the Eilish song), and the cinematography from Oscar winner Linus Sandgren (LA LA LAND) is everything we could hope for in the action sequences (there is no shortage of bombs), as well as the quiet moments.

Speaking of the quiet moments, this is undoubtedly the most sentimental and emotional of all Bond films. Sure, we get the amazing set pieces, the crazy stunts, the awesome Aston Martin (until it isn’t), the cool gadgets, the wisecracks, and the shootouts – but we also get Bond at his most reflective and personal. There is a line in the film, “Letting go is hard.” And it is … both for Bond and for us. So welcome back and adieu, Mr. Bond. Craig. Daniel Craig.

The film opens in U.S. theaters on October 8, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER


THE LITTLE THINGS (2021)

January 30, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. When a script has bounced around Hollywood for 30 years without getting produced, there is usually a good reason why. Written by John Lee Hancock in the early 1990s, a handful of directors have been attached at various times, but it’s the writer himself who has managed to get it on screen all these years later. Mr. Hancock has found his niche as a director by targeting the precise middle of mainstream with such films as SAVING MR BANKS (2013) and THE BLIND SIDE (2009), an approach more challenging when the topic is chasing a brutal serial killer.

Of course, casting three Oscar winning actors is always a wise choice. Two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington (TRAINING DAY, 2001, GLORY, 1989) stars as Joe Deacon, a defrocked L.A. homicide detective banished to the California desert as a Deputy Sheriff in Kern County. “Deke” suffered a heart attack, went through a divorce, and lost his job as a result of being haunted by an especially grisly unsolved case. When Deacon is tasked to pick up evidence in Los Angeles, he stumbles into a case being worked by his hotshot replacement, Jim Baxter. Oscar winner Rami Malek (BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY, 2018) brings his unorthodox mannerisms to the role and soon (and unsurprisingly) the ‘old school’ and ‘next gen’ detectives are teaming up to work a serial killer case with (unsurprising) similarities to Deke’s old case.

Denzel is especially effective in the first half of the film. His Deke is a quiet man with extraordinary observational and listening skills, and he brings none of his patented histrionics to the role. Deke’s ‘little things’ process quickly identifies a suspect, and it’s a doozy. Oscar winner Jared Leto (DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, 2013) is Albert Sparma, a greasy-haired appliance repair man (who let’s this guy in their house?) with a penchant for following news of the city’s crimes. Soon enough he’s taunting Deke and Baxter, and enjoying every minute of their frustration at the lack of evidence. It’s the cat and mouse game we’ve seen many times.

I’m a fan of retro movies, and Hancock announces upfront that this one is set in 1990. There are two reasons for this: that’s the era when he wrote the script, and it corresponds to a time when the Night Stalker was fresh on the minds of L.A. citizens. (side note: Netflix is currently showing the superb docuseries, “Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer”). The idea of mismatched partners with polar opposite personalities is another aspect that we are quite familiar with, and Hancock even uses flashbacks to show us exactly what haunts Deke.

Supporting work comes from Chris Bauer, Terry Kinney, Glenn Morshower, Natalie Morales, and Michael Hyatt, with the latter two providing a non-victim female presence – although neither is given much to do. The most interesting aspect of the story is how Baxter is falling into the same emotional void as his new mentor, but unfortunately, not much time is devoted to this. In fact, the story has very little to keep us interested, and instead that burden falls to Washington, Malek, and Leto. Hancock has delivered a dark, brooding crime thriller that fails to deliver the thrills. It certainly pales in the obvious comparisons to David Fincher’s Fincher’s SE7EN (1995) and ZODIAC (2007), but is fine for killing time while stuck at home during a pandemic.

Now available on HBO Max

WATCH THE TRAILER

 


OSCARS 2019 recap

February 25, 2019

OSCARS 2019 recap

 The Academy missed their goal of a 3 hour presentation, but only by 17 minutes! Ratings were up (over last year) and diversity was on full display, so it seems most can agree that things went pretty smoothly without a host. Despite some recent bungled decision-making, followed by a social media outcry which resulted in decision reversals, the Academy deserves credit for a fine presentation that featured more diversity than ever before. The days of #OscarSoWhite seem to be over.

I trust you didn’t come here to read yet another rant about why a certain award proves how out of touch the Academy is. Nope, I like movies and prefer to view the Oscars as a celebration rather than a political statement. By the time the final envelope was opened, all 8 Best Picture nominees had won at least one Oscar. Additionally, two other excellent films, IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK and FIRST MAN, also won awards (Best Supporting Actress and Visual Effects, respectively). Spreading the major award love over 10 different films speaks not just to the diversity, but also the deep lineup of quality filmmaking during 2018.

As always, the ceremony provided some fun talking/debating/arguing points. Queen opened the show with Adam Lambert proving how remarkable Freddie Mercury’s voice was, while Brian May showed us he still plays a mean guitar. Best Actor winner Rami Malek fell off the stage after giving his speech. Fortunately, he wasn’t seriously hurt. Melissa McCarthy (and a puppet) and Brian Tyree Henry fully and elaborately committed to their duties as co-presenters of Best Costume. Despite not being present, the omnipotent Oprah made an appearance – via the montage of 2018 films (from her bomb A WRINKLE IN TIME), and we saw a live quasi-reunion of WAYNE’S WORLD with Mike Myers and Dana Carvey (sans wigs and head-bobbing). Spike Lee finally won an Oscar (Adapted Screenplay for BLACKKKLANSMAN), and then proceeded to bogart the microphone from his equally deserving co-writers, before throwing a tantrum when GREEN BOOK was announced as Best Picture.

 Of course, the most Tweeted about moment came when Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga took the stage to sing their (now Oscar winning song) “Shallow” from A STAR IS BORN. It was a very intimate duet that, had there been one more verse, might have resulted in clothes being shed on stage. The aforementioned diversity resulted in the most presented Oscars for both African-Americans and Women, and with presenter Michael Keaton being the only white male to take the stage solo. Barbra Streisand (presenting BLACKKKLANSMAN rather than A STAR IS BORN) somehow escaped backlash after comparing herself to Spike Lee … see they are both from Brooklyn and like hats; although we aren’t sure if Babs greeted her superfan, nominee Richard E Grant. And poor Christian Bale – no way that room was ever going to vote for Dick Cheney, regardless of how remarkable his transformation and performance.

Olivia Colman (THE FAVOURITE) won the Best Actress Oscar over Glenn Close (THE WIFE). This was Ms. Close’s 7th Oscar nomination without a win, keeping her one ahead of fellow nominee Amy Adams (VICE). However, neither of them gained ground on songwriter Diane Warren whose nomination for “I’ll Fight” (RBG) was her 10th without a win. It should also be noted that Ms. Colman’s acceptance speech was the funniest, most charming and most heartfelt of the evening. In contrast to Ms. Close, Ms. Adams and Ms. Warren, Regina King was thrilled to win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar with her first ever nomination (IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK).  In a show of ultimate class, Congressman John Lewis presented Best Picture nominee GREEN BOOK, and we could be certain a man with his perspective and role in history, would not partake in any tantrum throwing.

 Mahershala Ali (GREEN BOOK) won Best Supporting Actor for the second consecutive year, and Alfonso Cuaron won 3 Oscars (Best Director, Cinematographer, Best Foreign Language Film) for his autobiographical masterpiece ROMA. Also winning 3 Oscars on the night were BLACK PANTHER (Costumes, Production Design, Score) and GREEN BOOK; however, it was BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY with 4 wins that walked away with the most statuettes. Even those who are upset by GREEN BOOK’s Best Picture win must agree that it was a much smoother end to the evening than last year’s debacle and mix-up.

***Note: although there were a few political barbs tossed in throughout the evening, President Trump’s name was never mentioned on the broadcast. This allowed the focus to remain mostly on the nominees and the films … and the plug for the under-construction Academy museum (opening someday). .

 


BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY (2018)

October 25, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. That VOICE! During my life, I’ve been fortunate enough to see many of rock’s greatest bands live in concert, including: The Who, The Rolling Stones, Bad Company, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and AC/DC. Each of these bands are amazing, but no other concert combined the energy, showmanship and musicianship as Queen (two different tours). And certainly no other lead singer donned a Harlequin leotard … only Freddie Mercury could make that look seem natural.

This is such an odd movie, and one that is somewhat difficult to discuss. It’s billed as an “inspiring story”, though one wonders how self-destructive living, an acrimonious band break-up, and dying young of AIDS could be considered inspiring. It’s not supposed to be a biopic, but the vast majority of the screen time is devoted to Freddie Mercury. And to really confound us, the film kind of drags (pun possibly intended) during the personal story times … and then explodes with greatness during the band and live performance segments.

Rami Malek plays Freddie Mercury, and he perfectly captures the swagger and strut of one of rock’s greatest theatrical showmen. Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsari in Zanzibar, and the film shows us his conservative family and time spent working as a baggage handler at Heathrow. Of course, things change quickly once he joins up with guitarist Brian May (played here by Gwylim Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy, MARY SHELLEY). When bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) is added, Queen is born.

With a story and script from two Oscar nominated writers, Peter Morgan (THE QUEEN, ironically) and Anthony McCarten (THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING), it’s surprising that much of the film is downright slow – especially the bits with frenemy Paul (Allen Leach). Perhaps this is more a factor of the issues with the director’s chair, where Bryan Singer is credited despite being fired during production. Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel filled in until Dexter Fletcher (next year’s Elton John biopic ROCKETMAN) was hired to complete the film. Lucy Boynton (so good in SING STREET) holds her own as Mercury’s wife and friend Mary Austin, and Mike Myers plays producer Ray Foster (with a tip of the cap to WAYNE’S WORLD). Other supporting work comes courtesy of Dickie Beau as influential DJ Kenny Everett, Aiden Gillen, Tom Hollander and Aaron McCusker.

The 20th Century Fox opening fanfare has its own Queen version, and is not to be missed as the film begins. Of course, it’s the infamous 1985 Live Aid performance that is the film’s highlight and one that will leave every audience member pumped up, smiling, and singing along. It’s a stunning sequence on a custom built Wembley Stadium stage, and it helps erase much of the tedium of the film’s non-band scenes. Erasing any doubt as to whether the film is worth the price of admission … hearing that VOICE at full volume on today’s theatrical sound systems. Killer Queen.

watch the trailer:


PAPILLON (2018)

August 23, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. It seems like most every remake that comes around begs the question, “Why?” This is especially true when the film being remade is a favorite such as 1973’s PAPILLON. The original was directed by Oscar winner Franklin J. Schaffner (PATTON, THE PLANET OF THE APES, THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL), and starred two legendary actors, Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. The screenplay was written by Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr, and was based on the Henri Carriere books “Papillon” and “Banco”. Mr. Carriere was, of course, the titular Papillon himself, and though the specifics of his stories have been met with skepticism over the years, he nonetheless delivered some fascinating material.

So why make the film again 45 years later? Well this is a kinder, gentler version and features two of today’s most popular actors: Charlie Hunnam (“Sons of Anarchy”) and Rami Malek (“Mr. Robot”) as Papillon and Louis Dega, respectively. The screenplay from Aaron Guzikowski (PRISONERS) focuses more on the friendship and less on the brutal prison environment. Director Michael Noer (I’m admittedly unfamiliar with his previous work) delivers a movie that looks very good and works as an example of loyalty and bonding.

The film opens in 1931 Paris and we witness Papillon (so known because of the butterfly tattoo on his chest) doing what he does … safecracking for a powerful mobster. He seems to be living the good life with his girlfriend (played by Eve Hewson, Bono’s daughter) and they have plans to escape this life of crime – always an ominous sign in movies. Sure enough, he is framed for murder and sent to the penal colony in French Guiana. It’s there that he meets Louis Dega (Malek), a master counterfeiter. Dega is a soft and slight man, and the wad of cash hidden in his nether-regions puts a target squarely on his back. So Papillon’s brawn and need for cash to grease the wheels of his escape, and Dega’s need for protection, make this the match made in heaven (or in this case, hell).

Being a man of eternal optimism, Papillon never loses faith that he will escape, even when the warden (a terrific Yorick van Wageningen from Fincher’s THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO) explains that hope is his enemy. The years spent in solitary confinement rob Papillon of years and weight, but never hope. A final stint on Devil’s Island reunites the two men who share a bond that only such harsh circumstances could build. Since we know that Henri Carriere wrote the manuscripts for the books in 1969, the ending is known before we start; however it’s the telling of the story that allows us to come to know both Papillon and Dega.

This latest script does a better job of developing the friendship, as well as providing Papi’s past and reason to live. The original nailed a man’s commitment to surviving, while this one makes hope more of a philosophy. Lacking the magic of McQueen, Mr. Noer’s version doesn’t quite compare, but for those who have never seen the 1973 film, this one should prove quite engaging – even if we old-timers don’t buy into the kinder/gentler approach.

Watch the trailer:


DIFF 2017: Day Six

April 8, 2017

The Dallas International Film Festival runs March 31 – April 9, 2017

 It’s hump day Wednesday and I’m feeling a bit refreshed after only two movies yesterday. Flashing the wisdom that should accompany my age, I have followed up two-for-Tuesday with another two movie day today. Both films are narratives, so my documentary addiction is on hold until tomorrow. Below is a recap of the two films I watched on Wednesday April 5, 2017:

 

BUSTER’S MAL HEART

A film festival wouldn’t be complete without at least one mind-blowing avant-garde cinematic experience. I’m not the kind that needs every ending neatly bow-wrapped, and I often enjoy having conventional story structure challenged and even dissolved. Writer/director Sarah Adina Smith seems to thrive in such an environment in this twisty psychological thriller covering three timelines (one of which may be a dream) … or a split personality … or two/three men from one … or some combination … or something else entirely that I might have missed. (I’m not too proud to admit this distinct possibility).

When a filmmaker bravely dives into the bizarre, casting becomes crucial. Ms. Smith nails it with Rami Malek, DJ Qualls and Kate Lyn Sheil. Thanks to the popularity of TV’s “Mr. Robot”, Malek is now a leading man – albeit a tad unconventional. Here he plays Jonah, a struggling family man with a wife (Ms. Sheil) and young child. Working as a night Concierge at a hotel, Jonah tries to make the best of the lack of sleep and minimal contact with his family. In addition to Jonah, Malek plays Buster, a slippery and hirsute mountain man who negotiates his way through the Montana mountains by hanging out in the multi-million dollar vacation homes vacated by their owners for the snowy winter months.

The film bounces between 3 periods for Jonah/Buster: the elusive mountain man running from the law, the bleak nights of the family man, and a dream-like sequence where he is adrift at sea in a row boat. Throughout the film, references to “sphincter” and multiple proclamations that “The Inversion is coming” lead us to believe there could be a sci-fi connection or an apocalyptic ending headed our way. Instead, it’s “the belly of the whale” that might unlock the mystery or mysteries serenaded by the thunderous techno-bass bass. It’s a head-scratcher for sure, but one that manages to keep us engaged despite our whirlwind of theories and uncertainly.

 

KATIE SAYS GOODBYE

The latest exciting new filmmaker to burst on the scene is writer/director Wayne Roberts, whose wonderful indie is my favorite narrative of the festival so far. Of course there will be those who decry yet another film exploitation of women as a victim of society. However, there is definitely another way to view the story of Katie, the good-hearted dreamer played beautifully by Olivia Cooke (“Bates Motel”).

Initially, Katie’s unflappable optimism seems unlikely, if not impossible. She walks miles to work along a dusty highway. She lives in a trailer park with her deadbeat mother (Mireille Enos), whom she supports both financially and emotionally. She works double-shifts as a waitress at a truck stop, where she’s known to toss in a couple extra bucks when a particularly frugal customer stiffs the other waitress. She also works a side job as a prostitute for locals and a regular trucker named Bear (Jim Belushi). Despite a life filled with *stuff*, Katie doggedly pursues her dream of saving enough money to move to San Francisco and become a hair stylist. Of course, she has to save enough money for her trip AND for her mother to live on. Her dream seems lofty, yet almost achievable.

When Katie falls for Bruno (Christopher Abbott), the new guy in town, she tries her best to fall in love and pull him into her dreams for a better life. It doesn’t take long before Bruno is made aware of Katie’s side job, and her fantasy world begins to crumble. On a daily basis, Katie happily (of course) drinks up the truck stop wisdom of diner owner Maybelle (Mary Steenburgen), who spouts such gems as “A man with a smile will hurt you”. Good intentions abound here, but we realize … even if Katie doesn’t … that the reality of people’s self-interest is the immovable object that so often tears down the dreamers of the world.

As with much of life, one’s enjoyment of the film is likely contingent upon the perspective you bring. A caustic, cynical view will have you waving off Katie’s lot in life as exploitive movie-making; while those who can share even a spoonful of Katie’s spirit, will find themselves rooting exuberantly for her dreams to come true … or at least to sustain her refreshing outlook on life and people.


THE MASTER (2012)

September 24, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Critics seem to love it, while movie goers seem to be left grasping for meaning. This is director Paul Thomas Anderson‘s sixth film, and could be either his best or worst, depending on your tastes. What is clear, however, is that all the hoopla over this being an expose’ of Scientology was for nothing. In fact, the cult/religion in the film plays second fiddle to a mentally unstable drifter who you will find no real interest in following (yet unable to take your eyes off).

On the plus side, there are three terrific performances in the film. Joaquin Phoenix delivers a frightening, off beat character named Freddie Quell. Freddie suffers from PTSD after WWII and is some kind of freaky genius when it comes to moonshine and hooch. We see him utilize missile fuel, paint thinner, photographic chemicals, coconuts and Lysol. Never accept a drink from Freddie. Philip Seymour Hoffman is pure charisma and power as Lancaster Dodd, the character supposedly modeled on L Ron Hubbard, the writer and (some would say) con man who developed Scientology through his Dianetics theories. Hoffman is fascinating to watch and totally believable as a guy who draws in the suckers. His staunchest follower is his ice queen wife played with quiet intensity by Amy Adams. This is quite a different role for her and she really delivers the goods.

 Joaquin Phoenix deserves a few words. His physicality here approaches deformity and his sexual perversion is clear early on thanks to a beach scene. Phoenix looks emaciated, and somehow inverts his shoulders and wears a constant grimace that would make Michael Shannon proud. Much of his performance reminded me of a young Marlon Brando … high praise indeed. Many of director Anderson’s films deal with the surrogate father/son relationship, and Phoenix is at his best when desperately seeking acceptance from his would-be father figure, Lancaster Dodd.

 Though Scientology is never mentioned, the “processing” demonstrated certainly fits right in with the early methods. Still, the weakness of the movie stems from the story. Following Freddie leaves a gaping hole in substance. There’s just not much to this broken man. On the other hand, we constantly want to know more about The Master, Lancaster Dodd.

Technically, it’s a stunning and beautiful movie with moments of cinematic greatness. From an entertainment perspective, some might find the second half downright boring and uninteresting. If not for the Oscar worthy performances and the stellar camera work and interesting camera angles, even more people probably would have walked out during the film. Jonny Greenwood is back (There Will Be Blood) with Anderson, and again delivers the perfect accompaniment. With some script work, this could have been a truly great film. Instead, we get just-missed greatness from a true auteur.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see 3 Oscar worthy performances OR unusual filmmaking and story telling is worth a couple hours of your time … especially when presented by an auteur like Paul Thomas Anderson

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: oddball characters and expert technical filmmaking are not enough to maintain your interest

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fJ1O1vb9AUU