Spectre

Spectre movie poster

Release: Friday, November 6, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: John Logan; Neal Purvis; Robert Wade; Jez Butterworth

Directed by: Sam Mendes

Spectre, a proposition with so much weight and symbolism behind it it required four writers to collaborate on the story. Four writers means four times the quality, right?

Right . . . ?

After three years James Bond comes flying back into action in Sam Mendes’ parting gift to fans of a franchise that’s by now half a century old. The literal sense of ‘flying’ is certainly more applicable as Mendes spends precious little time setting up his first action spectacle involving a helicopter, a stepping-stone of a henchman and a backdrop of Mexico engulfed in the Day of the Dead festivities where everyone looks like skeletons. A none too subtle reference to the fact Bond is now literally up to his neck in death. It’s an inescapable entity.

Metaphorically speaking? Well, if we’re talking big picture — and why not, this is a pretty big picture after all . . . arguably second only to that movie about wars amongst the stars coming up in December — Bond doesn’t so much come flying back as he does carefully, calmly touch back down with parachute attached, in the vein of one of his many improbable escapes in this movie.

Spectre had one hell of a steep mountain to climb if it was interested in besting its visually spectacular, emotionally hard-hitting predecessor, though it’s going to have much less issue summoning the spectators who are curious as to where Bond’s threshold for enduring misery and pain comes, if it comes at all. Invoking the sinister organization that gave Sean Connery a bit of grief back in the ’60s is one way to attract the masses (not to mention, something to build an aggressive marketing campaign around). Budgeted at an almost incomprehensible $250(ish) million, it’ll go down as one of the most expensive productions of all time.

Recouping that may not be as much of a challenge as I’m thinking it might be right now. When word gets out that Spectre is merely decent and not great — and it will soon enough — it will be interesting to see what happens. Will a lack of ambition deprive it the opportunity to become a major contender for top grossers this year? I suppose I better hold my tongue because anything can and does happen.

Ignoring its business potential, and for all of its shortcomings, of which there are disappointingly many, Spectre is still good old-fashioned James Bond, emerging a stylistically superior product — sleek and ultra-sexy, bathed in shadow and whipping slithery, shiny tentacles with menace in another memorable opening title sequence. Yet for all the familiarity this is the least Daniel Craig-y Bond we’ve seen. It’s a bizarre mix of some of the heaviest themes the franchise has yet visited with a comical edge reminiscent of the Pierce Brosnan era. (I won’t go as far as to bring up Roger Moore’s name . . . whoops.)

In some ways it makes sense; Mendes probably felt he needn’t overdo the dourness this time as we’ve been thoroughly bruised by what 007’s sacrificed in Casino Royale and now Skyfall. These aren’t DC Comic film adaptations; they shouldn’t be all punishment. The film should have some balance, and while the humor’s less punny as Brosnan’s brand, the way it’s introduced draws attention to itself in often jarring ways. Something doesn’t quite feel organic.

Spectre‘s concerned with shaking Bond to his core, as a man and as a professional assassin with a British accent and impossibly high-class taste in women. He’s going to get rattled even more so than he was in the last outing, where he basically lost everything. Mendes finds ways to make it more personal as we move beyond M and start digging into Bond’s familial history. Bond stumbles upon a mysterious ring that has an octopus symbol on it and sets out learning about its origins and who else might be wearing one. There’s also an old photograph, with parts of it burned away so you can’t make out one of the faces in it.

This hunt, unapproved by MI6, leads him on another exotic globetrotting mission — these transitions feel considerably less inspired than in times past — that takes him from Mexico to Austria, Tangiers to a desolate meteorite crater in Morocco and ultimately back to MI6 headquarters in London. On the way he comes into contact with friends both new and old — top of the list is the daughter of a rapidly ailing Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux, who is somehow even sexier than before), whom he must protect even when she insists she can protect herself thank you very much. But she doesn’t factor in Dave Bautista’s brute of a hitman, Hinx.

Madeleine turns out to be a handy traveling companion as she helps Bond get closer to finding out what the octopus ring represents. She, with a dark past she would rather soon forget than get into another gun fight, is reluctant to join Bond in seeking out the lair of one Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz). She does anyway because the script is that insistent. (So no, to answer the question: four writers does not necessarily equate to four times the quality.)

As Bond is off galavanting about, the situation on the home front is turning rather dire as MI6 has become absorbed by a larger network of secret service agencies, the CNS, spearheaded by Andrew Scott’s sneering and highly enjoyable Max Denbigh. His rhetoric is not as newsworthy as the filmmakers would like us to believe it is. He wants to shut down the 00 sector and replace human field agents with drones and computers, arguing one man in the field is no match for technological upgrades. He’s right.

But it doesn’t matter because with Bond being Bond, especially now with Craig taking the role in a direction that’s ever more hinting towards the muscularity of a Jason Bourne and away from the debonair of Sean Connery, there’s little they can do to prevent him using his License to Kill. I don’t care how threatening you may appear in front of Ralph Fiennes, you can’t take scissors to a card and denounce Bond’s status as an agent. You can scrub him from the official files, I suppose. Alas, the old argument: the instincts and emotional judgment of man versus the unfeeling, calculated efficiency of A.I. Sigh. This is, unfortunately, where we go in Spectre. And as for the family matters, the less said about it the better (take that as both a good and bad thing).

Mendes’ last entry is a good film on its own terms but it shrugs off its responsibility to be the most compelling entry in the franchise thus far, at certain points seeming so disinterested in upping the ante and instead revisiting many classic Bond moments in a pastiche that feels both unnecessary and awkward. Save for the aforementioned supervillian, who is by turns thoroughly disturbing and darkly funny — here’s where the humor would be a bit too sophisticated for the Brosnan era — Spectre introduces precious little new information. It’s a painful thing to say, but perhaps this sector is indeed obsolete at this point.

Recommendation: While not vintage James Bond, Spectre offers enough to fans of this long-standing franchise to keep some momentum going, even if quite a lot is lost. A good film with more than the usual number of flaws, is this film yet another victim of the hype machine? What do you think?

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 148 mins.

Quoted: “It was me, James. The author of all your pain.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.tinypic.com; http://www.imdb.com

99 Homes

Release: Friday, September 25, 2015 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Ramin Bahrani; Amir Naderi

Directed by: Ramin Bahrani

I have tried several different ways of expressing my enthusiasm over this movie about the housing market collapse of 2008, but each time I have failed. For whatever reason I’m struggling to make things like home foreclosures and adjustable mortgage rates sound exciting. Yet that’s exactly what 99 Homes is — thrilling, unnerving, emotionally resonant.

It’s particularly well-acted, and that goes a long way in getting an audience into a movie that’s based upon and set in the very economic times in which we live and from which many are still recovering. I suppose you could make a case for this film being skewed towards the homeowners in the audience but that’s a pretty pretentious target audience, don’t you think? 99 Homes must have something to offer that’s more universally appealing than showing just how disconcerting it is for a head-of-house to no longer be able to provide shelter for his family; that there is now officially a time where he will be “trespassing” just by standing at his own front door.

Andrew Garfield plays an indeterminately late-20/early-30-year-old construction worker named Dennis Nash with an almost immediate and effortless charm. Dennis lives in Orlando with his mother Lynn (Laura Dern) and his own son Connor (Noah Lomax) but is seen in the beginning fighting in court to keep the home he and generations of his family have lived in. Facing eviction after three months’ worth of overdue mortgage payments, the Nashes seemingly are given a second opportunity when Dennis is told they will have 30 days to appeal. The next day (or perhaps a few days later, timelines aren’t made abundantly clear) a real estate tycoon by the name of Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) shows up at their door and delivers the bad news.

There isn’t a comic book in sight as Spider-Man and General Zod square off in this political parable in which Rick Carver, a man who makes the seething Kryptonian warlord look like a saint, works with alarming efficiency in kicking the Nashes to the curb and coldly informing Dennis they have until the end of the day to get rid of whatever personal effects they have — now scattered on the front lawn — else their neighbors will be entitled to pick through it. It’s one of a few scenes that are surprisingly uncomfortable to sit through.

Perhaps it’s going too far by describing this as difficult to watch — it’s not as visceral, nowhere near as violent as the drama that drives hyper-realistic films like United 93World Trade Center and JFK — yet the authenticity of Ramin Bahrani’s timely film is just as sobering. 99 Homes masterfully embitters us to these harsher economic times, refusing to resort to action sequences or melodrama to express its outrage over the consolidation of power at the corporate level. Not to mention, the stripping of it from the average Joe.

Desperate to find work, Dennis takes up an offer from the very man who has just kicked him out of his house. Rick will pay him $50 for a clean-up job on a property he’s about to inspect. Dennis cleverly turns that $50 into $250 after impressing Rick with his work ethic. As this is going on he’s having to deal with life in a motel room, a motel that seems to be sheltering several other families and individuals enduring a similar situation. Dennis reassures his mother and son that he’ll do whatever it takes to get the house back, though he stops short of going into detail about how he’s earning the money.

As the weeks go by Rick takes note of how fast Dennis is learning and adapting, and in turn, Dennis’ income steadily increases as he graduates out of literal shit work and into more lucrative positions, such as the guy who gets to forcefully remove people from their homes. The irony of his employment status reaches a fever pitch when he’s forced to deliver a fabricated document from Rick’s office to the courthouse, a move that will all but ensure the eviction of a man whom Dennis has known for some time because the man’s son goes to the same school as Connor. Caught between a rock and a hard place, Dennis turns the document over, unable to face the consequences of losing his job.

I suppose there is technically some superhero influence to be found here, despite Ramin Bahrani’s every effort to keep his production grounded in reality. Garfield’s slide from decent, hardworking American father into greedy, shortsighted and frightened real estate agent epitomizes Harvey Dent’s veiled critique of the Dark Knight’s vigilantism. “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” While it is the writing that must judge the transformation such that it occurs neither too quickly nor too deliberately, it’s up to Garfield to sell his character as someone who has lost their way profoundly.

We’ve seen this kind of hypocrisy before, in fact it’s a fairly popular narrative device, defining everyone from misled youths to overzealous superheroes to working class fathers seeking the perfect Christmas gift for their children. Yet it’s against this backdrop of a severe recession where the blueprint feels inspired, where an otherwise predictable character arc feels less predictable. The still up-and-coming Andrew Garfield gives a rousing performance in the lead, and is supported ably by an intense and malevolent turn from Michael Shannon. Between the two of them, there’s plenty of real estate to value and cherish in this urgent and relevant drama.

Recommendation: 99 Homes, somewhat ironically, does not exactly sell itself. It’s a film about the housing market collapse and there’s no denying that’s going to be a turn off for many theatergoers, but if you’re a fan of either actor involved here I urge you to give it a shot. It’s surprisingly compelling, tense and beautifully mounted and the performances in particular tend to stay with you. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 112 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

What We Do in the Shadows

wwdits-movie-poster

Release: Friday, February 13, 2015 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Jemaine Clement; Taika Waititi

Directed by: Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi

It’s once again cool to bust out your vampire get-up for the next Halloween party because these guys have just made being an ugly, putrefying member of the undead so totally hip. Even I, one of Dracula‘s biggest naysayers, wants a sweet cape.

If you’ve been entranced by musicomedy duo Flight of the Conchords, a televised show/live performance featuring the inseparable Kiwis Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie this film has your name written (in blood) all over it. Their brand of humor runs amok in this mockumentary about several vampires struggling to just get by in the 21st Century, all while anticipating and preparing to attend the annual Unholy Masquerade hosted in their fair town of Wellington, New Zealand. This film is such an amusing spin on the vampire legend that being a dedicated fan isn’t a matter of eternal life and death.

What We Do in the Shadows sucks-eeds on a number of levels. Aside from that being possibly this blog’s worst pun yet, it’s also paramount to understanding why you’ll walk away from this fangtastic comedy feeling completely refreshed and satisfied with how you’ve spent your money. Consistency is difficult to find in comedies, much less those of the contemporary variety, but there is no better word to describe Shadows, apart from echoing critics’ chosen adjective: hilarious. From the performances to the frightful wardrobe; the subversion of vampiric lore to the commitment to being ridiculous, this is a product that delivers on its promises from the opening frame of being a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

The film invites you in with a frank discussion between two roommates attempting a diplomatic approach with a third, much lazier roommate, the 183-year-old Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), who hasn’t done the dishes in at least five years. Clement’s Vladislav and Taika Waititi’s Viago, both several centuries Deacon’s senior, are understandably upset. Tensions have literally risen to the ceiling and added to this the fact that their fourth roommate, 8,000-year-old Petyr (Ben Fransham) doesn’t exactly try to voice his concerns. Quickly the tone of the film is set, although direction is a little harder to nail down.

Shadows, while thoroughly ridiculous, knows not to forsake tradition, however. Some of its funniest moments come from demonstrating the “mild inconveniences” of having to suck blood to stay alive. Because they cannot expose themselves to sunlight the gang has to prowl the streets at night looking for new “friends,” and also because of other technicalities, they often find themselves denied the chance to enter night clubs since they’re never invited in. A friend of Deacon (a human female, as it so happens) tricks her ex-boyfriend Nick into coming over to their house to eat what he thinks is a hearty bowl of spaghetti. Uh, it’s not. It’s actually pasghetti, thank you very much, and it looks remarkably similar to a bowl of live worms. A chase ensues when the guest refuses to eat and Nick, despite his best efforts, may never be the same again.

Several other humorous vignettes transpire before we get to the main event: the Unholy Masquerade, and I refuse to reveal anything more about those sequences. While tensions among the roommates are being documented in each scene, this is where things really start to unravel for Vladislav in particular. As he’s expecting to become the featured guest of this year’s Unholy Masquerade, it’s no surprise he is crushed when he hears that not only is he not the guest of honor but instead it’s none other than his ex, whom he describes — in a scene that had me crying from laughter — as “that damn Beast.” All hell breaks loose at the dance when Pauline (a.ka. “The Beast”) quickly sniffs out the human members among Vladislav’s crew — Nick’s computer engineer/dorky friend Stu is one such individual, as are the people filming the documentary — but luckily enough our gang escapes the angry mob of undead.

Shadows may be loosely strung together in terms of plot, but when the gags come in such rapid succession and the characters are this entertaining, basic structure fades into the background. It’s easy to sit back and eagerly anticipate the next twist in the adventure. The addition of human Stu is a brilliant reflection of our own wide-eyed reactions to these bloodthirsty drama queens. He’s also someone the vampires actually take kindly to, as he introduces them to the conveniences of Skype and smart phones, assimilating these creatures slowly into the modern age.

It’s a pretty difficult world to get by in if you’re a mere mortal, but if you’re a vampire good luck trying not to go insane figuring out what the point is of things like Twitter and Instagram.

wwdits-2

4-5Recommendation: What We Do in the Shadows pulls off an impressive feat of remaining funny, engaging and clever from beginning to end while creating several interesting riffs on the vampire genre. For fans of anything Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi have done this inspired documentary is an absolute must. It basically is for anyone in search of one of the year’s better comedies. The sun hasn’t come up yet, but this has a good chance of staying alive for a long, long time. Fantastic bit of creative energy out of New Zealand. Check it out.

Rated: N/R

Running Time: 86 mins.

Quoted: “What are we?” / “Werewolves, not swear-wolves . . .”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com