No Time to Die

Release: Friday, October 8, 2021

👀 Theater

Written by: Neal Purvis; Robert Wade; Phoebe Waller-Bridge; Cary Joji Fukanaga

Directed by: Cary Joji Fukanaga

Starring: Daniel Craig; Léa Seydoux; Rami Malek; Christoph Waltz; Ralph Fiennes; Lashana Lynch; Ana de Armas; Ben Whishaw; Naomie Harris; Jeffrey Wright; Billy Magnussen; Rory Kinnear

Distributor: Universal 

 

***/*****

The time has come for James Bond to move on to greener pastures. In an unlikely turn of events, arguably the world’s most ineligible bachelor is looking to settle down and bid cheerio to his obligation to protect Queen and country at all costs, even especially ones of a personal nature. All good things must come to an end and with endings we look for closure. Ah, but is closure always satisfying?

We saw him get close before. Tantalizingly, torturously close to leading a normal life. The departed Vesper Lynd still haunts him. In No Time to Die, we see him pay his respects at her tomb in the scenic Matera, Italy, which might feel like a deleted scene from Casino Royale if not for the staggering mark of maturity in “I miss you” — a line Daniel Craig delivers in such a way you really feel the weight of those 15 years. James Bond is all grown up now. You feel it most in the dialogue, which allows Craig to serve up his best performance yet as the iconic super-spy, the actor going beyond his era’s stiff upper lip stoicism and confessing to things you’ve never heard his or any Bond say before: “I love you;” “I’m truly sorry.”

No Time to Die is such a weird experience. Watching Bond soften like a Walls vanilla ice cream cone on a hot summer day is weird. It’s also wonderful. But for whatever reason, I just could not get into the action. Partly due to the buzz-killing aroma of Greek tragedy. Partly due to the fact that no stunt here really blows the roof off. And that ending really bothers me, so we may as well get it out of the way now. If packing Kleenexes in anticipation of the soap opera ending is what the people want in all their big franchise arcs, fine. Personally I feel there’s a way to be dramatic without going scorched earth. Is this perhaps why people lament The Dark Knight Rises so — that needling incongruity of the brooding vigilante suffering all only, ultimately, to be done a kindness?

You say tonally inconsistent; I say it’s compassionate.

Directed by Cary Joji Fukanaga, clearly a talented director capable of steering a massive ship, the overly dour, overly long story details Bond’s tango with foes both old and new as he is yanked out of retirement to save the world for one last time. There is a ton of moving parts in this movie and a daunting number of relationships to stay Onatopp of, though not all are worth the effort. The backbone of the film concerns tension between Bond and Madeleine (Léa Seydoux, reprising her role from Spectre), specifically the former’s shifting perception of the latter’s innocence/complicity. When the two are ambushed in Italy by Spectre assassins it’s déjà vu all over again with Bond unable to see Madeleine as anything but Traitor #2. More shaken than stirred, Bond buggers off to Jamaica where he is soon contacted by an old friend from the CIA in Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) who’s desperate for his help in tracking down a kidnapped scientist (David Dencik). 

For all that gets shortchanged and is made unnecessarily cluttered, the conflict presented in No Time to Die offers more bang for your buck, presenting not one but two evil forces with which Bond and MI6 must contend. The inimitable Christoph Waltz returns as arch-villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld, here regrettably confined to a portable holding cell as if a Hannibal Lecter knock-off and doing most of his limited damage via a removable bionic eye that enables him to call the shots from a safe distance, this time with comically epic failing results.

When it comes to new threats, No Time to Die offers an expected bit of double-agent treachery with Billy Magnussen’s disturbingly smile-happy Logan Ash, and goes old-school with Rami Malek’s soft-spoken rage: “My family got wiped out by one man, now the entire world will pay!” On the one hand, you kinda have to love the Scaramanga-like excessiveness, yet that crazy leap in logic feels regressive, underscoring how good we had it with Le Chiffre’s far more nuanced, relatable desperation. And Bond, never one to mince words, is dead right: All his opponent is is another angry man in a long line of angry men, coming up a little short in terms of the gravitas required of a figure framed as the ultimate reckoning for 007.

Where No Time to Die truly frustrates however is in its handling of internal conflict within MI6. M (Ralph Fiennes)’s judgment is called into question with the revelation of Project Heracles, code for a dangerous bioweapon that targets victims’ DNA so anyone related to them is at risk as well. Supposedly there was a morally upstanding justification for its deployment, but in the wrong hands (i.e. Safin’s) it’s going to wipe out millions, including the entirety of Spectre. Bond and M are at loggerheads, which is fun to watch, especially with Fiennes getting to go a little bigger with the role than he has before, but it’s the flippant treatment of Nomi (Lashana Lynch) as Bond’s ostensible replacement that baffles. A fun, strong performance from Lynch is severely undermined by the decision to have her character fall back in line with SOPs, her agency the equivalent of borrowing the keys to the DB-5 for a quick joy ride.

Added all up, it really sounds like I hated this movie. At first, I think I did. Like Roger Ebert after watching the movie North. But Fukanaga and his writing team don’t deserve childish vitriol. No Time to Die is a messy dish but the meat and potatoes are there at the bottom. After all, the Craig era has always been infused with pain and coldness. His final outing is an odd blend of the past and the present, where throwbacks to classic lairs and bad-skinned baddies are welcomed while the mimicking of Tony Stark martyrdom feels off-brand and, yeah, unsatisfying. 

They’re bringing Knives Out at a gunfight

Moral of the Story: I’m extremely wary of my own reaction here. I had a similarly negative response to Quantum of Solace, the direct follow-up to Casino Royale. I have since gone back and watched that movie at least twice, and despite it bearing the worst title of any Bond film — of any movie really that has nothing to do with physics — I’ve appreciated it a bit more. It’s closer to a pure action movie. So it’s certainly more simplistic than something like No Time to Die. It’s possible I warm up to what Fukanaga and his writing team have done here but as of this moment it remains a big disappointment.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 163 mins.

Quoted: “It’ll be great! I’ve had three weeks training!”

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Black Widow

Release: Friday, July 9, 2021

👀 Theater

Written by: Eric Pearson

Directed by: Cate Shortland

Starring: Scarlett Johansson; Florence Pugh; David Harbour; Rachel Weisz

 

 

 

 

***/*****

Timing is everything. This applies, painfully so, to Black Widow, a film that feels compromised in a way few Marvel movies have.

In her first foray into the Marvel Cinematic Machine director Cate Shortland finds herself in an incredibly difficult position. Twenty-four films deep into a shared universe that has now spun off multiple streaming shows, she is tasked with compressing both origins story and swan song into one entertaining package. Black Widow‘s out-of-sequence placement burdens the filmmaker with a number of difficult creative choices, most notably how much nuance she can bring to a story that ostensibly dives into the emotional interior of one of the foundational members of the Avengers.

Hey, at least they finally got the damn thing made. Scarlett Johansson* may have had to wait 11 years, 20 films and her own character’s killing off to earn what Robert Downey Jr. got three times in five years, Chris Hemsworth three in six and Chris Evans twice in three,** but the only resentment you sense from Natasha Romanoff in her eighth and likely final MCU appearance is reserved for Dreykov (Ray Winstone — Noah; The Departed), the Russian psycho who brainwashed and tortured her and her ‘sister’ Yelena Belova (a scene-stealing Florence Pugh) as young girls, along with countless others from all over the world, into becoming an army of perfect assassins.

A bittersweet prologue sets us all up for a rude awakening: a seemingly normal American family in 1995 Ohio is suddenly compelled to make a break for Cuba after being discovered as the Russian sleeper agents they actually are. ‘Father’ Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour) and ‘mother’ Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz) have been keeping their ‘children’ Natasha (here played by Ever Anderson) and Yelena (Violet McGraw) sheltered for as long as they can but a sad twist of fate shatters the illusion, the daughters separated and handed over to Dreykov and eventually sent to a nebulous place called the Red Room, a hovering fortress in the sky that could have been cribbed from a Pink Floyd concept album.

Cut to the present (which is still the past) and Natasha’s on the run from U.S. Secretary Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) after giving him and his Sokovia Accords the one-finger salute. Her nomadic lifestyle in Norway is short-lived with the arrival of the mysterious mercenary Taskmaster, drawn to an item our hunkering-down hero is unwittingly in possession of. After a violent showdown on a bridge, Natasha escapes to Budapest, where another David Leitch-like round of punishingly awesome fight choreography awaits. Here, reunited with her former sis, Natasha discovers the true extent of Dreykov’s control and power, along with a possible solution to the problem.

Post-Budapest and the spy thriller dynamic evolves into more of a dysfunctional family team-up as the pair resolve to get the old gang back together in order to take down the brute who irrevocably changed them and free the other Black Widows from the same violent servitude. The process of course mandates that mom and dad also confront their own separate, lived-in realities and their culpability in this whole mess, leading to the film’s signature scene (awkward family reunion, anyone?) — an emotional catharsis for all involved. Turns out, reliving the “good old days” is tricky to do when the good old days are your own Tahiti (what a magical place).

Black Widow is a Phase 4 debutante that is much better when grounded instead of going for literally atmospheric, generic spectacle, with some of the quieter moments packing as much of a punch as the intense fight sequences. However, the timing of the whole thing magnifies certain issues. Eric Pearson’s screenplay is not compelling enough for a film this late in the game. And considering the hefty themes in which it traffics and the cast of characters at its disposal there is enough content here to make two films. Instead the exploration of trauma and disillusionment feels rushed and harried by the “Make it count!” business mentality governing its singular existence.

Ultimately the performances save this from total mediocrity. Johansson has kicked ass from her Bechdel Test-failing introduction in Iron Man 2 (2010) through to this bitterly short-lived end, saving her most somber performance for last. Yet even in her own movie she is to some degree playing second fiddle. That’s less of a problem when the reason is Florence Pugh, who might well be stretching her legs for her own MCU run. Let’s just hope it doesn’t take quite as long — in real time or otherwise — to get that going. 

* I am considering reviving the Scarlett Johansson Project. I feel bad leaving that one incomplete. Would anyone be interested in seeing more of those kinds of posts? Show of hands in the comments below, please!

** I do not include Captain America: Civil War in that list considering that is more of an ensemble film than a true stand-alone entry. But, sure, go ahead and add it. Even more to my point.

Comrades in harms.

Moral of the Story: An uncharacteristic end-zone fumble for MCU President and ball-cap enthusiast Kevin Feige, Black Widow feels rather shortchanged by the finite space into which it has been forced to exist. On one hand, you might look at the movie multitasking as both origins and send-off as a unique thing. I don’t know any other MCU installment that has had to do that. On the other, you can’t help but feel Natasha Romanoff deserved more than what amounts to the cinematic equivalent of a hit single. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 134 mins.

Quoted: “Tell me, how did you keep your heart?” 

Check out the Final Trailer for Black Widow here!

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Atomic Blonde

Release: Friday, July 28, 2017

→Theater

Written by: Kurt Johnstad

Directed by: David Leitch

Perhaps the only thing you really need to know about Atomic Blonde is that it bears the insignia of one David Leitch, a certifiable jack-of-all-trades whose résumé includes numerous actor, producer and assistant director credits. His directorial experience unofficially includes a joint effort with Chad Stahelski on 2014’s John Wick and will soon include (officially) Deadpool 2. Leitch’s stunt work can be found in everything from BASEketball to Blade; Seabiscuit to The Matrix: Revolutions. But it is his reputation behind the scenes as a stunt coordinator that most directly informs his gleefully violent send-up of the spy genre.

Despite the main objective being to create something that breaks from the “stuffy atmosphere” typically associated with films of its ilk, Leitch’s directorial debut isn’t a true original. This is an adaptation of the 2012 graphic novel The Coldest City, written by Antony Johnston with artwork by Sam Hart. With the fall of the Berlin Wall imminent, it imagines a fictional narrative involving a lethal MI6 agent named Lorraine Broughton who is dispatched to Berlin to retrieve a dossier containing the identities of suspected double-agents trying to get across the border into the West. While there she’s also to find the person responsible for the murder of a fellow agent. Even as a neutral third-party, Broughton soon discovers her trip to Germany won’t be simple when you can’t distinguish enemy from ally.

In a role that recalls her intensity and grit in Mad Max: Fury Road, Charlize Theron stars as the enigmatic blonde, a survivor of many things unexplained at the start of the film. Her curvature emerges from a tomb of ice, battered and bruised to a degree that pretty much equates her to a modern superheroine. Hair matted to her neck and shoulders, eyes bloodshot, she swigs vodka to take the edge off. It’s an absorbing and moody opening that immediately draws us into the world of a hardened spy. Enquiring minds want to know: what chain of events have unfolded to get us here?

The gory details of a mission gone bad are recounted in a flashback structured through an interrogation taking place in the present day — a scene to which we frequently cut throughout. The technique underscores the rampant paranoia associated with the era. After all, who’s to say Broughton herself can really be trusted? Her handlers, an MI6 executive (Toby Jones) and a CIA agent who looks a lot like John Goodman, seem to humor her rather than accept as gospel what she says about her experience “working with” Berlin station chief David Percival (another great loose-cannon performance from James McAvoy). When some of that testimony proves potentially embarrassing, protocol requires the suits to bring out the broom as well as the rug.

The ass-kickery of Atomic Blonde may be steeped in familiar themes, but through sheer force of style Leitch manages to hack-and-slash his own path through the crowded genre of Cold War-set spy thrillers. It’s a breathless display of close-quarters combat in which sustained sequences of bone-crunching action are the movie and everything in between is just a bonus. The scene in the stairwell is unbelievable; something that would make Jet Li proud. Think John Wick turned espionage thriller: replace its lo-carb Neo with a female version of James Bond who makes Daniel Craig look like David Niven.

Proving a crucial component to the experience is a soundtrack rife with killer ’80s tunes, some original, others covered by contemporary artists. Everything from David Bowie collaborating with Queen (‘Under Pressure’ has particularly good timing) to Depeche Mode, Led Zeppelin to German punk group AuSSchlag is sampled, with so many numbers contributing to the overall tone and pace of the film that it becomes sort of impractical to break it all down. (So here’s this as a reference — be wary of spoilers if you haven’t yet seen the film.)

Sure, Atomic Blonde has room for improvement. The direction is solid yet there’s still something nervous about it. There’s a slightly nagging pacing issue stemming from the way the chronicle is deliberately, almost self-consciously constructed. Occasionally the flashiness is a little too flashy. Other times it’s borderline pandering. Broughton’s whirlwind romance with an attractive but naïve French agent (Sofia Boutella) comes out of left field. At best the sudden blossoming of an intimate lesbian relationship identifies a certain joie de vivre in a film that otherwise lacks it. At worst, such tenderness strikes you as out of character. Very, very out of character. Still, I’m not sure what harm introducing a little warmth into a cold world, a cold movie really does, other than veer dangerously close to the very cliches its star proudly claims her latest role steers well clear of.

You don’t really come away with the impression that you’ve been educated as much as you feel like you’ve endured as many heavy blows and dodged as many bullets as the protagonist. This is a firecracker of an action thriller, though I’m left wondering if maybe the coupon would only be good for a one-time viewing. In fairness, Leitch cautions the viewer against taking things too seriously with an opening title card that suggests it might actually be better to view the movie as an “alternate reality” rather than something extracted from history.

The more I think about it, the only thing you really need to know about Atomic Blonde is just how much of a badass Charlize Theron is. She is a force of nature, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with her male contemporaries. Her strong work, combined with the stylistic vision of David Leitch, is the recipe for one of the most violent female-led action films I have ever seen and one of the most purely entertaining.

Recommendation: Gritty, violent, with a female touch. More like a female frikkin’ wallop. This film festival-pleasing, pulpy genre-tweaker is a strong contender for best female-starring vehicle in all of 2017. The specifics of the narrative don’t really matter when an actor is just so in control of their craft. One of my favorite performances from Charlize Theron. If you thought she was a cold-hearted killer in Fate of the Furious, wait until you get a load of the Atomic Blonde. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 115 mins.

Quoted: “Don’t shoot! I’ve got your shoe!” 

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

Allied

allied-movie-poster

Release: Wednesday, November 23, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Steven Knight

Directed by: Robert Zemeckis

Brad Pitt finds a new ally in Marion Cotillard in his post-Angelina Jolie world. Sad face.

Actually, those were just rumors. And this isn’t a gossip column.

On the other hand, the two are pretty convincing playing a pair of lovestruck assassins whose loyalty to one another constantly competes with their loyalty to their own countries. Robert Zemeckis’ homage to classic wartime romantic epics is undeniably better because of the effortless charm of his leads, though Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh they are not. Not that that’s exactly a fair comparison. Allied isn’t setting out to reinvent the wheel; it rather feels more like a new tire with fresh tread. Perhaps it is better to consider the film more in the context of how it measures up to the classics found in Zemeckis’ back catalog as opposed to where it lies within the genre.

The film opens with SOE operative Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) parachuting into the sand dunes of French Morocco. It’s 1942 and he’s on a mission to take out a Nazi ambassador in Casablanca. He’s to work with French Resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard), who narrowly escaped France after her resistance group became compromised. On the assignment they pose as a married couple and are successful in eliminating their target and escaping with their lives.

What begins as merely a cover story develops into the genuine article, and soon Max and Marianne are married and settling down to start a family in London. In a particularly memorable scene they welcome their daughter Anna amidst the chaos of another aerial raid accompanying the German blitzkrieg that devastated the East End. Even under normal circumstances the birthing of a child is an event that tends to really bring a couple together, so I can only imagine going through that experience literally on the streets while debris and gunfire are raining down around you would do wonders for your ability to commit to your significant other.

The intensifying pressures of the war make Max’s job a living hell when he is told by an officer that outranks both himself and his direct superior Frank Heslop (Jared Harris) that his wife is a suspected double agent who is actually working for the Germans. He is ordered to trick Marianne into playing into a trap and once it’s proven she is indeed a German spy he must execute her himself or face being hanged for high treason. Behold, the great sacrifices that must be made in love and war. Or in this case, love during war.

Old-fashioned romance is shaped by two terrific performances from Pitt and Cotillard who once again remind us why they are among the industry’s elites. The heartache accompanying Max’s dilemma is compounded when you take into account how good their characters are at what they do. The performances within the performances are compelling. Steven Knight provides the screenplay, tapping into the psychological aspect of a most unusual and highly dangerous profession. The first third of the film makes a point of fixating upon that idea, of how trust is so hard to come by when you’re a professional spy.

That same third is a good barometer for how the rest of the film will play out. If you’re expecting bombastic, flashy displays of wartime violence you may need to look elsewhere, although the aforementioned blitzkrieg provides some pulse-pounding moments. Knight’s story ditches numbing CGI in favor of a more human and more intimate perspective. It’s an approach that admittedly contributes to a slower paced narrative but one that never succumbs to being boring. This is a film that’s more about the way two people look at each other rather than the way entire nations fight each other. On those grounds alone Allied feels like a throwback to war films like Gone with the Wind and Casablanca, and where the former lacks the latter films’ sense of grandeur it more than makes up for it in nuance.

Ultimately Allied finds its director working comfortably within his wheelhouse while offering  a darker, more subtle story that’s well worth investing time into.

allied

Recommendation: The trifecta of a steadily absorbing narrative, plush cinematic texture that contributes mightily to the mise en scène, and excellent performances from two seasoned pros makes this an easy recommendation. Especially if you are partial to Robert Zemeckis’ compassionate voice. Every one of his films have been tinged with a romantic element but whereas The Walk, his penultimate release, suffered from an over-reliance on it (to the point of schmaltz, in this reviewer’s opinion) his 2016 effort uses it to its advantage, creating an ultimately enjoyable and often surprising wartime drama that will reward repeat viewings.

Rated: R

Running Time: 124 mins.

Quoted: “Hey, what happened to my kiss?” 

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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.”

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

Bridge of Spies

Release: Friday, October 16, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Matt Charman; Joel Coen; Ethan Coen

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

The Red Scare may be long since over but in Steven Spielberg’s 29th feature (!) we’re thrown right back into the thick of it as Tom Hanks is tapped to negotiate the swapping of two major (human) pawns caught in a protracted and ugly chess match of intel gathering, fear mongering and society dividing.

Bridge of Spies, the collaborative effort of almost too many Academy Award winners (is there such a thing?) — directed by Spielberg, brought to life by Hanks and penned by the Coens in conjunction with relative unknown Matt Charman — has all the makings of another Spielberg classic. While it certainly does no harm to anyone’s reputation — to state the obvious, this is a thoroughly enjoyable picture — it falls just shy of greatness. Then again, that’s a bar set so high it becomes paradoxical: not even Spielberg can top Spielberg at his finest.

In 1957 Brooklyn, suspected Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is arrested at his apartment and taken into custody. The American public, having been rattled by the recent Rosenberg conspiracy in which an American husband and wife had been found guilty of selling secrets to the USSR about the Americans’ development of an atomic bomb, demands Abel be sentenced to death. Insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Hanks) is called upon to represent Abel for reasons that are still bewildering to this critic. I suppose it’s enough that Donovan’s firm knows how seriously he is committed to his duties, or maybe it’s because everyone else who was asked said no. It’s not exactly clear either way, though fortunately his meteoric rise to national prominence isn’t clumsily handled.

Of course no one, not even Donovan’s family — most notably his wife Mary (Amy Ryan) — expects Donovan to seek Abel’s acquittal; the assumption is Donovan would facilitate a fair trial as a kind of courtesy to the currently most-hated man in the country. The atmosphere is such that Abel’s fate is all but a foregone conclusion, yet Donovan seeks a lighter sentence, a 30 year stretch in prison, which would all but ensure Abel’s death anyway. He finds himself at the mercy of the Supreme Court after trying to argue evidence gathered against the Soviet (whom Donovan has curiously been sympathetic to from day one) has been tainted by an invalid search warrant. He loses the case, 5-4.

Meanwhile, an American pilot by the name of Francis Powers (Austin Stowell) has been shot down over Russian soil while on a reconnaissance mission, captured, convicted and imprisoned by a somehow less empathetic government who subjects him to torture as they similarly assume him to be a spy. Following his perhaps predictable defeat, Donovan is asked to negotiate the release of Powers in exchange for Abel, putting him at even greater odds with his fellow Americans. To further complicate matters, Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), an American graduate student studying German economics in East Germany, is captured when he finds himself on the wrong side of the newly constructed Berlin Wall.

As we shift into the middle third of the film the environment becomes decidedly more chilly, and tension begins to build in earnest. What was supposed to be a simple, though by no means easy, exchange of one American for one Soviet, devolves into a circus of lies and misdirection, with Donovan receiving none of the hospitality overseas that he extended to Abel back home. It’s against a backdrop of post-World War II devastation and the bitter European winter our embattled lawyer has to have the toughest conversations yet. After much deliberation and with his patience wearing thin, he bluntly tells Wolfgang Vogel (Sebastian Koch), Donovan’s German equivalent, there will be no deal between the U.S. and the Soviets if they can’t negotiate the release of both Powers and Pryor for Abel. If there’s anything to be gained from such a hugely risky request, it’s our appreciation for why he is the man for this job — I don’t even think Hanks, the person, is quite this principled.

To reiterate, Spies isn’t vintage Spielberg and because it isn’t, it’s all too easy to dismiss as a minor entry. There’s nothing minor about a private citizen brokering this historic deal, though. There’s nothing forgettable about the way the Coens and Charman manage to create a clear dichotomy between Russian and American sentiments, even if the Coens have to censor themselves more than usual here. Spies could have been a truly dark picture, yet it understands that often violence is more potent when suggested rather than demonstrated. That’s not to say the film isn’t a sobering reminder of the state of the world in the late ’40s through the ’50s. The rampant paranoia is best captured in an early scene in which Donovan’s school-aged son is preparing for the inevitable dropping of the atomic bomb, while struggling to understand why his father is trying to protect “one of them.”

As per usual, the Spielbergian approach encompasses several different genres — historical drama, loosely-defined biopic, espionage thriller — and it’s compelling in each capacity, combining historical elements while exploring the many layers that make human beings what they are, regardless of nationality. Once more he delivers a wholesome product that’s equal parts entertaining and informative. It’s a quietly powerful picture and one well worth visiting.

Recommendation: Reliably strong work from Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg makes Bridge of Spies an unexpectedly warm and enjoyable outing. Though not quite top-shelf stuff, this Cold War-set thriller should please fans of either camp and American/European history buffs. Perhaps its biggest shortcoming (maybe it’s more of a disappointment than a flat-out failure) is that the Coen brothers’ signature quirky, dark humor gets lost in the shuffle here. There’s comedy to be found, sure, but this doesn’t really feel like a product of their writing. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 141 mins.

Quoted: “The next mistake our governments make could be the last one.”

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

Kingsman: The Secret Service

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Release: Friday, February 13, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Matthew Vaughn; Jane Goldman

Directed by: Matthew Vaughn

Thuffering thuccotash, itth Thamuel L. Jackthon! Again!

For those bothering to thtick with me through this review, be advised that one of the most prolific black actors of all time is the height of the appeal of Kingsman: The Secret Service. It’s also a thymptom of a dithappointing outing.

I know, I know. I’m pushing it a little bit here, but I don’t think I’m being any more offensive than Jackson. The man — and give him credit, he does work hard (so does his agent!) — is difficult to get over when he’s the only one trying to stand out in this mildly-amusing riff on the irreverent James Bond franchise. It’s a film with bigger plans, even, attempting to capitalize on the silliness that the casual observer associates with the spy genre, but in an ironic twist the fun devolves into a farcical spoof of itself in the final half hour. However, that’s not the issue at large.

It’s not that Colin Firth (that’s actually not a lisp, thank you very much) tries too hard playing Sean Connery-lite, clean-shaven and with a swagger perhaps more consistent than Jackson’s butchered pronunciations of the letter ’s.’ Firth is good here, his own amusement apparent in the way he parades across the screen, umbrella in hand, treading a tricky line between sophistication and aloofness. As Harry Hart, code-named something hilarious — oh, I don’t know, say ‘Galahad’ — Firth is cool and confident, even especially under pressure. He’s a spy who’s experienced his fair share of whoopsie-daisies working for a boutique secret service agency tucked away in the back of a posh clothing store. One downfall of being in this profession is seen at the film’s open when a fellow agent is killed by a grenade, or something.

It’s not that the emotional heft of the film strays into sentimentality so far that the overriding story makes little sense. Harry/Galahad finds it his duty to help a wayward youth named Gary (a.k.a. ‘Eggsy’), the son of the fallen Kingsman, avoid a life of crime and hardship on the streets (the upturned ball cap and padded jacket pegs Taron Egerton as a rude-boy in-the-making) by drafting him into the secret service. It’s better to walk into the path of a stray bullet as a youngster than die an old and miserable sad-sack, amiright?

It’s not that Jackson parodies the speaking-impaired until the bitter end, nor the fact that Gazelle (Sofia Boutella)’s legs are an odd choice for villainous material. It is refreshing seeing someone not play up a lack of legs as a disability, though. I don’t take the racism, fear-mongering and general hatred towards all of mankind as a sign either. Kingsman suffers from tonal shifts — one moment it’s all fun and games; the next we hear racist/homophobic slurs delivered with no other purpose than to inject some shock value, as if we need to have any more reason to cheer on Harry/Galahad — but these are aspects one can get over in a hurry if they’re intent on switching off their brain and enjoying a good showdown (or ten).

No, what’s most offensive about Kingsman is that despite its few quirks and charms — the chemistry between Firth and Egerton is undeniable, while Big Macs make for an exquisite, product-placement-friendly dinner with the villain — is the genericness. As a send-up of the spy genre, this mostly falls into disarray. To reiterate, the only thing the movie manages to send-up is the Q-branch and maybe Thamuel L. Jackthon.

In between extended moments of interminable blandness, Matthew Vaughn’s wannabe-James Bond occasionally finds moments of inspired lunacy and Jackson is admittedly hilarious. This was the most fun I’ve had in a movie that seems to like stealing ideas from others. Maybe the ultimate issue is that the most vivid memory I have of this film is a speech impediment. Either way, there’s a lot here that blows Kingsman‘s cover, but I believe Matthew Vaughn really was on to something here.

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2-5Recommendation: Can I call this movie boring? No. Can I call it dumb? Yes. Can I call it inspired? Mehhhhhhyesss . . . ? It’s an amalgam of James Bond with soft-core thriller material. It doesn’t have enough going for it to be that memorable yet this movie has proven to be very popular. Who knows. I’m probably off on this one. If you haven’t seen it already, you’re likely better off by not listening to me and seeing it for yourself. Wouldn’t be the first time on this blog that that’s happened! 😉

Rated: R

Running Time: 129 mins.

Quoted: “This whisky is amazing. You will shit.”

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

A Most Wanted Man

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Release: Friday, July 25, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

As all good things must, even A Most Wanted Man comes to an end.

And it’s going to take everything in my power to remain on the conservative side here, what with a possible capstone performance to mark the end of a career as towering as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s. Trust me when I say experiencing the final moments of this film is no easy task; that is, if you hold any empathy for the troubled man at all. That’s not to say we won’t be seeing him around in other things, of course. He’ll reprise his role for The Mockingjay: Part 1 this November, and he’s also turned up in the lesser-known 2014 drama God’s Pocket.

But in A Most Wanted Man, here’s where we are obliged to bid adieu to that more significant part of a once-in-a-generation performer. The celluloid here acts as a time capsule, in which Hoffman seems permanently encased. Selfish for us to try, sure, but it’s such a great performance there’s no way we can let this be over. Eventually we’ll have to.

In a somewhat befittingly stressful turn as Günter Bachmann, the leader of a secretive intelligence operation based out of Hamburg, Germany, Hoffman becomes involved in the (mis)handling of a young half-Chechen, half-Russian illegal immigrant named Issa Karpov (an incredible Grigoriy Dobrygin) who’s fleeing from torture and persecution in both his home countries. Bachmann’s methods are not attuned to those maintained by his peers, particularly the snaky Dieter Mohr (Rainer Bock) and his office’s roughneck tactics, and Bachmann holds a particular disdain for the Americans given a situation in the recent past. Pale, disheveled and with a cigarette permanently glued to his lips, Günter is the perfect enigma for Hoffman to decipher.

That the film does not become a sideshow to the real-life tragedy involving one of its cast members is almost miraculous. This will be the last of Hoffman’s lead roles, and while proximate his death, his work still remains relatively unaffected. He does, however, look physically exhausted in a number of scenes. But rather than directly confronting us with his sickly appearance, the film uses it for context, making great use of Hoffman’s tired expressions and measured delivery to express an epic character. His physique immediately conjures a lifetime of struggles.

In Anton Corbijn’s film, perspective taints objective reality. We spend our time with this rag-tag group of German intelligence operatives (whose casting includes the likes of Daniel Brühl and Nina Hoss) but does this mean this is the right side of the tracks to be on? Who really ought to be dealing with this suspected terrorist? Is that precisely what Issa is, a terrorist? What could have become an overwhelmingly complex and dense narrative instead is surprisingly simplified without cutting out critical details — the scarring on Issa’s back is very telling of a dark history and helps cement his nightmarish reality.

Highly compelling material adapted from the novel by John le Carré is distributed evenly and effectively across the film’s myriad talented stars. Willem Dafoe steps in as Tommy Brue, the head of a German bank which may contain funds to be inherited by Issa from his father, a man he claims to have raped his mother in front of him when he was much younger, and when Mother was a mere 15 years old. (Again, despite the crowd-pleasing flavor of the thrill, one thing A Most Wanted Man can’t be accused of is glossing over pertinent stuff.) Robin Wright matches her intensity in House of Cards and continues to affirm her spot in the upper echelons of great thespians with a spectacular performance as CIA Agent Martha Sullivan, who comes to Günter’s assistance when he needs it least. Or so he has determined.

A Wanted Man is a fiercely accurate rendering of real-world events unfolding in a period as hectic as the last ten years have been, both in the Middle East and on a global scale. A fictitious account of one man’s journey through bureaucracy in a desperate investigation into what his real identity is — is he terrorist blood or an innocent civilian trying to escape oppression? — here’s a story that at least demands an open mind.

While we revere this strange German’s effectiveness at his duties, it is safe to say we revere the man behind the man more. If all good things have to come to an end, Hoffman’s story has come to a very good ending indeed. He is hands-down the reason to watch this film, and in a masterpiece such as this, that’s relatively high praise.

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4-0Recommendation: One of the very best films of the year, not just as a genre film or from a performance-standpoint, A Most Wanted Man is an excellent way to spend $10. For the Philip Seymour Hoffman fans (of which I believe there are at least one or two), for the Robin Wright fans, for fans of excellent adaptations of books (supposedly. . .I would now like to read this book). For anyone wanting relevance to the ongoing ideological struggles amongst the myriad countries ensnared in violent turmoil in the Middle East currently, and between them and a United States government that insists on making everything its business, you are compelled. . .nay, required to watch this film. It is that good.

Rated: R

Running Time: 121 mins.

Quoted: “We find them. When they’re ours, we direct them at bigger targets. It takes a minnow to catch a barracuda, a barracuda to catch a shark.”

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

TBT: From Russia with Love (1964)

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Yes, the 2014 FIFA World Cup is going on. This much is true. Somewhere out there amongst the trees and suffocating humidity of Brazil some folks are kicking funny-colored balls around and trying to get them into little rectangular nets at opposing ends of a long, intensely well-groomed patch of grass. No, I like the sport of feet-ball, I really do. Or at least I appreciate it from a safe, respectable distance. I’m not so into it that I’ve gotten the scarf yet or painted my face into crazy distorted shapes that would have a good chance of scaring kids on Halloween but the quadrennial event effectively manages to capture my attention each time. (This time I guess the joke’s on Spain?) The ultimate joke, though, is really on me I think, for letting this classic slip through the cracks for so long. There’s nothing like a good old-fashioned romp throughout Russia with Sean Connery and a hot babe hanging off his arm. This was also quite the struggle as far as prioritizing between this or Daniel Craig’s turn as Bond. Good as Connery is in the role — appearance-wise, he suits it best — the stories around Connery, I’m finding, are just not quite as involving as the modern stories have become. There is, however, delicious nostalgic appeal to films like 

Today’s food for thought: From Russia with Love

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Status Active: May 27, 1964

[Netflix]

Mission Briefing: After killing one of Spectre’s top agents in the form of Dr. No, James Bond finds himself targeted by the global terrorist network as he partners up with Russian beauty Tatiana Romanova in order to retrieve a sensitive war device known mysteriously as ‘The Machine.’ A Russian decoding device, referred to as The Machine, represents heightening tensions between Soviet and American politics as the Cold War continues, with the British Secret Service attempting to intervene and prevent further incident. James Bond will have to overcome his weakness for women in order to recover the device and succeed in his mission.

Mission Support: 

  • Tatiana (Daniela Bianchi) — supportive of anything 007 will ever do; approach with caution
  • Kerim Bey (Pedro Armendariz) — holds critical information about Spectre and its members; a valuable although still more expendable resource
  • Rosa Klebb, a.k.a. ‘Number Three’ (Lotte Lenya) — hostile Soviet member of Spectre; approach with extreme prejudice
  • Kronsteen a.k.a. ‘Number Five’ (Vladek Sheybal) — master chess player who likes to use his skills for predicting Bond’s every next move; it is possible to stay one step ahead of his game, though, if careful
  • Grant (Robert Shaw) — Spectre’s hunk of muscle equally skilled in hand-to-hand combat who is sent to deal with any complications that arise in the theft of The Machine; approach with extreme prejudice
  • ‘Number One’ (Eric Pohlman, voice; Anthony Dawson, body) — one of the prime targets of MI6 is also very cat-friendly but his affection for death and destruction should not be ignored; perhaps one day 007 will get to meet the man face-to-face, but for now, maintain distance
  • Sylvia (Eunice Grayson) — additional eye candy. . .because, you know. Reasons.

Q Branch: Oh, ho-ho, boy-oh-boy do I have a treat for you, 007! This mission will require the use of this one very specific briefcase I have for you. But. . be careful not to open it the wrong way, old chap. Wouldn’t want you to be blown away by what you see, would we?

Performance Evaluation: Sean Connery’s second time around as England’s most dangerous/sexy spy courts even greater danger as his antics in Dr. No just two years prior have incurred the wrath of Spectre, a terrorist organization that will stop at nothing to eliminate this threat to the Soviet’s attempts to win the Cold War. From Russia with Love is the next logically progressive step for James Bond as he operates on Her Majesty’s wishes to keep crown and country above all else. Unfortunately this incredibly misogynistic production is lightyears away from being anything close to being a politically correct film. But I guess we don’t care about those kinds of things when we sign up for the new James Bond movie, do we?

In fairness, we’ve returned almost to the source of Ian Fleming’s rumination on the terrifying dominance of the Soviet Union in this day in age. The character of James Bond was a way of explaining a rational path through the fear and paranoia the world had been plunged into for years on end. It may be a stretch to imagine that Fleming’s apparent hatred and distrust of women (see any number of female leads in these early films getting slapped around as if they were Bond’s personal punching bags) was a simple manifestation of the author’s frustrations of the time into which he was born, but it wouldn’t be the craziest jump to conclusions one could make. There’s plenty verbal and physical mistreatment to be found here, as Bond finds himself unwittingly (but not reluctantly) in the arms of a beautiful Russian spy whose loyalty to her own country absolutely must be questioned.

Along with her shady motives, Bond must also be looking over his shoulder for the treacherous and physically stout Red Grant, Russia’s pride and joy and perhaps Bond’s equal in hand-to-hand combat. Amounting to little more than a thug sent by the sinister Klebb, Grant is on a collision course with Bond in a last-ditch effort by Spectre to eliminate Britain’s involvement in a gradually escalating crisis.

From Russia with Love sports acceptable action sequences, though its colorful imagery, exoticism and period detail has been slightly damaged in the constant comparisons to over 40 years’ worth of James Bond cinema. The novel’s sense of adventure and political tension is recovered, though. And there’s no doubt there are particularly heart-racing moments that nearly stand toe-to-toe to scenes of the modern versions. In the end, though, this particular entry shows its colors on a few too many occasions in terms of its position in mainstream Hollywood and by continuing to perpetuate the ideals of the 60s and 70s that it’s very much a man’s world out there. Guess we need to get used to that, though, for there’s far more of it to come.

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3-5Recommendation: For Bond fanatics, the second Bond film from Terence Young ought to be one of the first of the films viewed, especially if one is to get a sense of continuity and a real perspective on who this near-legendary secret agent is and how he operates. Barring clunky, horrendously cheesy dialogue (par for the course, I’m afraid), over-the-top sound effects and the abysmal attitude held about women in this period, From Russia with Love is a mostly successful action adventure. Connery also has the added benefit of being the first actor to take on the iconic role, and although opinions will always vary on who the best Hollywood fit really is, there can be very little arguing that this man did it with a degree of style unmatched by any other since. Now, if there was only something fans could do to shake an older Connery out of his slurred-speech phase. . .

Rated: PG (okay. . .this is really quite ridiculous, 1960s. . .I mean, the sexual innuendo alone. . .ah forget it)

Running Time: 115 mins.

Quoted: “Let his death be a particularly unpleasant and humiliating one. . .”

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

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