Reel Opinions

Saturday, October 30, 2021


Scott Cooper's Antlers is one of the darkest films I've seen in a while, both visually and tonally.  It's one of those movies that, if it were a cartoon, everyone would be drawn with a little rain cloud hovering over their heads and following them around.  However, the characters within it are not hopeless mopes.  They may be facing hard times, and dealing with a cannibalistic mythical creature that's terrorizing their town, but they're not giving up the fight.  You have to admit, that's not easy.

The film has a relentlessly heavy tone, which might turn some off.  This is just as much a drama about the lives of these characters, as it is a thriller concerning the monster in the middle of it all.  Even the film's setting is gloomy.  It's set in a mining town in Oregon that is pretty much on its last legs, and where it seems unemployment and evictions are a way of life.  This was once a booming town when the mines were active, but they have long been stripped, and now pretty much serve as a place where drug addicts can cook meth.  One of its residents, Julia Meadows (Keri Russell), spent most of her life trying to leave this place and her past behind.  Now a family tragedy has brought her back, she's living with the younger brother (Jesse Plemons from Jungle Cruise) she initially left behind, and has taken a job as a teacher at the local Middle School as she tries to sort through a lot of personal demons that the recent tragedy has dug up.

One of the students in her class is a scrawny and sad-faced 12-year-old boy named Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas), who is a victim of bullies at school, and whom Julia fears is living in an abusive home, given his physical state, plus the disturbing and violent drawings that she keeps on finding at his desk.  We follow Lucas' walks home from school, where he stops to pick up any animal carcasses he might find, then returns to his mostly abandoned house, where he enters a locked door leading up to the attic.  There is something up there that he is feeding those carcasses to, something that looks almost human, but animal in nature.  Each time we see it, it seems to lose more of its humanity.

Of course, Julia doesn't know this, and thinks that Lucas' secret is much more human.  She starts snooping around, looking for any sign of an abusive home environment.  What she finds is obviously much more sinister and ancient in nature, a mythical evil that the locals of the land describe as a wendigo.  How the child came to be keeping and feeding such a creature in his home, I will leave for you to discover.  Regardless, Antlers makes a steady and confident stride from a tragic human drama to a creature film with a body horror bent with relative ease.  The film was produced by Guillermo del Toro, and it shows in the film's love of ancient monsters and myths.  These elements mix well with co-writer and director Cooper's usual heavy style and haunted characters.  

This is not a fast-paced or thrilling movie, but it is quietly unnerving and interesting throughout.  I found myself wrapped up in these characters and their individual sorrows and struggles.  Sure, the movie could have gone a bit more in depth with some of these characters, but what's here is compelling.  Russell and Plemons both give sympathetic turns as siblings that are haunted by their shared pasts, as well as what's currently going on around them.  She thought she had left this life behind, only to find herself dragged back into it, while he never left, and as the local sheriff, is forced to evict people who he has probably known most of his life.  When the supernatural angle takes over the story, Russell remains captivating, while Plemons slowly slips into a character type who has to doubt everything, and is constantly wrong until he is face-to-face with the evil in question.  Still, before that happens, his character has a sad quality that lead to some emotional scenes.

I doubt this movie will go over huge with the Halloween weekend crowd, as it's not exactly built on thrills.  It's more about slowly mounting dread, and these characters facing the sadness of their pasts as well as their current situation.  Cooper has not made a traditional monster movie here.  With Antlers, he has made a sad human drama with a sinister paranormal angle.


Friday, October 29, 2021

Last Night in Soho

Just as in his earlier film, Baby Driver, co-writer and director Edgar Wright shows an incredible ability to set a scene to music in Last Night in Soho.  So much so, I can't help but wonder why Hollywood hasn't put him on the top of their list to adapt a musical.  Music is so essential and plays such a large role in this film that it almost becomes a character in the storyline, sets the mood, and creates an atmosphere that few filmmakers can achieve with just select soundtrack choices.

The film is ultimately about nostalgia, as its heroine is a modern woman named Ellie (Thomasin McKenzie) who is addicted to the music and pop culture of the London scene of the 1960s.  Ellie lives with her grandmother (Rita Tushingham), whom she inherited her love of the era from, and seems to be a bright and confident young woman with a future in fashion design.  She's headed off for London, and seems ready to conquer the world.  These opening moments tell us all we need to know about Ellie, her hopes and dreams, as well as her secrets, as she also holds a sixth sense, which we learn when the image of her dead mother appears in her mirror behind her.  It's something she's lived with for most of her life, is certain she has it under control, and knows that the next stage in her young life will help her move beyond any past pains she's experienced.

Of course, when she gets to London, it is anything but like she dreamed of it being, and nothing like how the movies of her favorite era (or the stories her grandmother told her of when she visited there) displayed it.  She gets stuck with some shallow and catty girls at her new college, and can't quite get into the party scene that everyone else is enjoying.  She decides to look for her own place, and finds a small apartment in Soho, complete with a grumpy old lady landlord named Ms. Collins (Diana Rigg, in her final performance).  It's after she's settled into her new home that the dreams begin, as every time she falls asleep, she dreams about a blonde-haired woman named Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), who comes to 1965 London with her own desires to be a famous singer.  In her dreams, Ellie follows Sandie as the woman is swept up by the desires and charms of a man named Jack (Mark Smith), who promises to help guide her career.

At first, Ellie is transfixed and fascinated by these dreams, and maybe she envies the Sandie in her visions, as the woman appears to be everything that the timid modern girl is not.  This leads to Ellie getting her hair done in the same style as Sandie in her dreams, as well as emulating her style and swagger, which makes her stand out more at school.  However, it quickly becomes apparent that something sinister is afoot when these dreams start invading Ellie's everyday life, even when she is awake.  Is she really dreaming?  Are these a warning of some kind?  As the visions become much darker and corrupt, and Ellie finds herself haunted by presumably supernatural forces, Wright and co-writer Kristy Wilson-Cairns start to rely on more conventional jump scares, and a third act that doesn't quite stick the landing.

Last Night in Soho is quite engaging for a paranormal thriller throughout, but it's never quite as groundbreaking for the genre that the film's first half hints at.  The truth is, we never learn that much about Sandie as a character.  The performance by Anya Taylor-Joy is captivating and hints at a lot of mystery (as does the screenplay), but it doesn't act on it in quite the way we hope it would.  She starts out as kind of an enigma who fascinates us, much as she does Ellie, but as the layers of the plot are stripped away and we start getting answers, it's a bit disappointing that there's not much more to her. It's also a bit disappointing when Wright starts relying on conventional scares of ghouls and dead people popping up and screaming at Ellie, when the movie seemed to be leading up to so much more.   

I feel I should emphasize that this is still a strong movie, despite its weaknesses.  The movie has an unmistakable flare and emotional pull as we are pulled back and forth between reality and a vision of the 60s that seems partly inspired by nostalgia, and partly a dark nightmare as that initial glitz and glamour are stripped away to reveal darker undercurrents and revelations.  There are also some great visuals here, such as how a lot of times, we will see Ellie reflected in mirrors when Sandie is in front of them, or a dance scene between Sandie and Mark, where she is briefly replaced by Ellie time to time.  Ellie is escaping into a fantasy through these visions, and probably winds up following them too deep, which leads to the dangers she encounters later on.  The film does a wonderful job of mixing dreams, harsh reality, and a striking nightmare into one narrative, and it only disappoints during the Third Act, when it's revealed there's not as much here as we might have hoped.

The movie is so intoxicating for so long, it is a disappointment where it ends up, but I simply can't deny how much it does work when it's successful.  Wright seems much more confident when he is setting up his mystery, his two worlds the story inhabits, and bringing his vision to life.  When he has to rely on the much more standard blood-soaked shocks of the horror genre, his heart just doesn't seem as into it.


Sunday, October 24, 2021

Ron's Gone Wrong

Ron's Gone Wrong
is a charming and heartfelt children's fantasy that both celebrates technology, while also exploring the negative side effects.  This is represented by two of its key characters who work for the fictional tech corporation, Bubble, within the film.  It's CEO Marc Weidell (voice by Justice Smith) has created his latest tech device in order to help kids make friends and expand their world.  Meanwhile, its COO Andrew Morris (Rob Delaney) wants to use this same technology to spy on its customers for profit.  And while their conflict may create much of the message behind the film, its heart belongs to a young boy and the friendship that he builds with a defective piece of tech.

Said boy is Barney Pudowski (Jack Dylan Grazer), a lonely preteen with no friends, a widower father (Ed Helms) who is usually too busy keeping his struggling novelty business afloat to pay him much mind, and a Bulgarian grandmother (an unrecognizable Olivia Colman) who is very much set in the ways of her old country.  The latest technology to come out of Bubble, the B-Bot, is the new must-have gadget that literally every kid at Barney's school owns, except for him.  It's an egg-shaped robot that personalizes itself to your likes and interests, connects itself and you to others, and has helped expand communication.  Barney's dad wants to surprise his son with one for his birthday, but they're naturally out of his price range.  Luckily, he finds a good deal from a delivery driver who sells one that fell off his truck during shipping for a discount.  Dad brings the defective B-Bot home, and that is how Barney meets Ron (Zach Galifianakis), a smiling little B-Bot with a blank expression, kind of looks and talks like a distant relative of Baymax from Big Hero 6, and has more than a few defaults to his programming.

Ron is supposed to be able to download information, find out everything about Barney, and be his best friend right out of the box.  But because of his defective nature, he can do none of those things.  He doesn't even have the required safety protocols that prevent him from harming others.  And yet, as Barney spends time with the little B-Bot, a bond does begin to form.  There is a charm to Ron's sunny yet off personality, and Galifianakis does some fantastic line readings that get genuine laughs.  Through Barney, Ron learns what it means to be a friend, and even the kid learns some lessons in the process.  Along the way, there are some stops as the film looks at our social media-obsessed culture, the effects of on line bullying and harassment, and the roles that tech plays in our daily lives.  Sure, all of these issues have been explored in numerous films, but this movie manages to find a heartfelt and at times hilarious angle to make them engaging.

Ron's Gone Wrong has been provided with a smart script, a talented cast, and a strong visual design from Locksmith Animation Studio, a newcomer in the feature film animation field.  It's kind of hard not to fall for Ron the B-Bot, especially when he's going around rounding up strangers off the street who he thinks will make good friends for his human owner.  The movie also does a good job exploring the effects of online humiliation, when an embarrassing incident involving a popular girl at Barney's school (Kylie Cantrall) goes viral, and nearly winds up destroying her emotionally.  Kids will definitely be able to relate to a lot of the film's messages, and adults will enjoy its wit, fast pacing, and genuine heart behind it all.  The stuff involving the corporate situation going on behind the scenes at Bubble, and how the two minds behind the company react differently to the situation of one of their B-Bots going rogue is a bit less reliable, but it manages to hold together and speak to all age groups, which family films are supposed to do in the first place.

When it comes to animated features satirizing technology and its impact on society, this will have to be second to The Mitchells vs. the Machines (still my favorite animated feature of 2021), but at the very least, this is miles above The Addams Family 2, which is its only competition in the family market right now.  Just like Ron the B-Bot, the movie is a scrappy little underdog that you feel like rooting for.


Friday, October 22, 2021

Dune: Part 1

Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part 1 is a visual feast for the eyes and senses, but its heart is a bit harder to detect.  Ever since Frank Herbert's novel was initially published in 1965, Hollywood has made multiple attempts to bring the story to life.  There was Alejandro Jodorowsky's efforts back in the 70s, which never came to light, but inspired a documentary of its own.  Most notably, David Lynch gave us a troubled adaptation in 1984 (which he late disowned) that left audiences more bewildered than engaged.  There was even a TV film on the SyFy Channel a while back.  Herbert's story has kind of become Hollywood's Great White Whale, constantly hunting and chasing after the perfect adaptation that will please the built-in fanbase, and those in the audience that are walking in cold.

Villeneuve's effort (long delayed by the pandemic) is Hollywood's latest hope to lure people back to theaters, without having to rely on a Marvel Comic property.  And if you're looking for a grand vision and some spectacle, you will certainly find it here.  It seems almost a crime that Warner Bros. is also releasing this on streaming the same day, as those who watch it by that method will not be seeing it the way it was meant to be.  But for all of its visual splendor, the movie never quite transported me, because of a curious lack of emotion.  Deciding to divide the novel into two parts is a smart idea, but what the filmmakers have done is divide it in such a way that this film is essentially two and a half hours of set up.  It leads to a film that is splendid to look at, but will probably play better to a lot of people when the second film comes around.

Herbert's novel is famous for being dense and complex, and the movie follows suit, giving us a Sci-Fi setting that is probably more serious than the usual Hollywood blockbuster fare these days.  Set in the distant future, the action is mostly centered on the planet Arrakis, a desert world that is known for its massive sandworms that burrow beneath the ground, and for being rich in a material known as spice, which can increase human vitality and also aids in planetary travel.  In this universe, the world are run by feudal rulers, and as the film opens, the ruler of the ocean planet of Caladan, Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) has been given control of Arrakis by the unseen Emperor Shaddam IV.  The wise Duke suspects that he is being set up for a trap of some kind, but regardless, he transfers his army, his concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), and their son Paul (Timothée Chalamet) to the planet in an attempt to bond with the Arrakis' native people, the Fremen.  

Turns out the Duke is right to be suspicious of his orders, as it is revealed to all be an effort to wipe out him, his family, and followers in an attempted coup.  The film marks the early moments of Paul's training where he will eventually become a hero and savior to the people of Arrakis, and avenge the evil plot that was staged against his people.  There's much talk about a prophecy, some prophetic dream sequences, and a lot of fleeting glimpses of a young Fremen woman named Chani (Zendaya) who will play a big part in Paul's life in the second film, but here is mostly regarded to a lot of cameos, and a line at the end that teases what is to come.  So, while Paul may follow the standard "Chosen One" story arc that is so beloved in Fantasy and Sci-Fi fiction, what we mostly get here is just a lot of teasing of future events.

As much as Dune: Part 1 wows the senses, it never quite reached that all-consuming joy that a truly great epic can instill with me.  While the movie itself is grand in scope, its characters often seem dwarfed by their surroundings, at least in this cinematic staging.  Part of this is due to the screenplay which, while faithful to the source, is exposition-heavy rather than engrossing.  The rest is due to the performances which, while not bad in any way, never come across as truly human or relatable.  For fans of the books, I'm sure this will matter little.  But for those who have not dived deep into Herbert's worlds or mythology, this might seem incomplete.  While a sequel is almost inevitable, it's still a long way off.  Will this be enough to entice audiences to want to come back for Part 2?  That's a more difficult question.  All I can say is my own personal reaction, which had me intrigued, but also frustrated a lot of times.  I was loving what I was seeing, but I kept on waiting for something other than the visuals to sweep me away, and it never quite happened.

This cinematic take treads a fine line between brilliance and unevenness, but it ultimately does stay afloat, and leaves the viewer wanting to see what it's leading up to, which is obviously the point.  So, I guess it can be labeled a success.  But, I'm more intrigued by what visuals there are to come, rather than witnessing more of Paul's hero journey. 


Saturday, October 16, 2021

The Last Duel

The most terrifying story you're likely to hear at the movies in October will likely not involve any ghosts, or even the return of Michael Myers.  More likely, it will be the one contained within The Last Duel of Marguerite de Thibouville (played brilliantly by Jodie Comer), who found herself a victim of rape during the Middle Ages, a time when it was likely not just to not believe the woman, but to almost make a public spectacle out of it, having the woman's husband and her presumed rapist duel to the death for the entertainment of the King and locals.  The public cheer the two men on, while Marguerite is forced to watch, knowing that if her husband loses the jousting battle, she will not only be deemed a liar "in the eyes of God", but that she will be publicly executed for her "crimes".  

Her story makes this often overlong (two and a half hours) and at times muddled film adaptation directed by Ridley Scott, and co-written by two of the film's stars, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (their first script since Good Will Hunting), worth watching, as does Comer's sensational turn.  Just two months after she impressed as Ryan Reynolds' love interest in Free Guy, here she is with an Oscar-worthy dramatic turn.  When the movie is focused solely on her, it achieves some truly great moments of acting and suspense.  However, for whatever reason, the film does not center squarely on her story, even though it is the most gripping of the ones it tells.  Instead, it decides to tell the story from two other viewpoints, both of her husband (played by Damon), and his friend-turned-rival (Adam Driver), who is the one suspected of raping her.  We get the whole story told from each character, and this leads to some repetition and a dragged out narrative, when it is Marguerite's view that is the most satisfying.

Damon and Driver play French noblemen, though with their American accents constantly slipping through, it's sometimes a bit hard to buy.  Damon is Jean de Carrouges, a respected soldier on the battlefield in the Hundred Years War who has built up a close friendship with Driver's Jacques Le Gris.  Both are real life figures, though they never quite come across as three dimensional portrayals, as the actors play them rather one note here.  But when Le Gris becomes the favorite of Count Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck, sporting platinum blonde hair, and bringing some welcome mean-spirited humor to his role), and Carrouges finds out that the land that was supposed to be given to him as a dowry for marrying Marguerite has been given to Le Gris instead by the Count, it begins a long-brewing feud, culminating with Marguerite accusing Le Gris of raping her while she was alone in their house without the servants.  

The movie is divided into three separate chapters, with the events leading up to the fateful event being told from the different views of the characters.  All of these are supposed to raise questions within the audience as to just who is telling the truth, until the movie flat-out tells us with the title card for the third chapter, which is Marguerite's side of the story.  Before that, we get the stories of both men, and we see how they twist certain events (such as a heroic day on the battlefield) to their particular whim.  It's also interesting to see how a single event is interpreted by these men.  But more often than not, the style of going back and repeating the same scene, only from a different point of view, proves repetitive.  It is not until the film's third chapter, focused on Marguerite, that the movie truly finds its power and becomes completely engaging.  Before then, its power is delivered in fits and starts.

The Last Duel does make the mistake of keeping Comer's performance somewhat on the sidelines for a majority of the film, but once she is finally allowed to take center stage, it not only works, but it works so brilliantly that you wonder why the script did not just focus on her to start with.  Her story brings about the most emotionally shattering moments, as she lives in a time when rape against a woman was not a crime against the woman, rather it was a crime against the husband, as she was his property.  She finds her female friends turning against her for speaking out about what happened to her, as it was "proper" to remain silent.  In one chilling scene, her cold and distant mother-in-law (Harriet Walter) flat-out tells her that being raped is almost expected if you are a woman.  It happened to her once as well, and she has simply lived with it her whole life.

This is ultimately a greatly effective film that simply takes quite a while to find its footing.  It's a slow burn movie that you really have to stick with, as it leads up to some truly sensational moments, including the titular duel that closes out the film, which is horrifically brutal and sad.  Before it finds its proper tone and point and view, it can be a bit tedious.  The movie probably could have used some more editing to get to the truly great material faster.  Still, I must honestly say that it is worth waiting for.  If 2021 is not remembered in terms of movies of the year Jodie Comer became a star, then there is little justice in the cinematic landscape.  Even if the film itself remained a mess throughout its entire running time, it would have been worth watching for her.

High praise, perhaps, but she deserves it with the year she has been having.  She is a big part as to why The Last Duel works in the end, and why I am recommending it wholeheartedly.  Despite its flaws, there is some undeniable greatness here, and not just from her, but from the film itself once it finds the angle it should have been taking all along.


Friday, October 15, 2021

Halloween Kills

If I gained anything from Halloween Kills, it's the knowledge that Haddonfield, Illinois is a terrible place to live.  Surprisingly, it's not just because it is the regular stomping grounds of inhuman serial killer, Michael Myers (played here by James Jude Courtney, with assistance by the original 1978 actor, Nick Castle).  It's because the town is made up entirely out of angry rampaging mobs, bratty kids, and people too stupid to know it's not okay to poke around dark places when Myers is in town.

I know that David Gordon Green's 2018 film, which dropped the entire mythology that had been building up since after 1978 and gave it a fresh start, was admired by a lot of people, but I was not one of them.  I thought it was a well made, but largely ineffective thriller that missed out on the tension and suspense that John Carpenter's film had in droves, and emphasized bloody carnage and characters I couldn't give a hoot about meeting grisly ends at the end of Myers' blade, hands, foot, whatever.  With a title like Halloween Kills, I kind of got the impression that this sequel was not going to be any different.  What I did not expect was how little an impact returning heroine Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) would have here.  One element I did like about the previous film is that it gave us a Laurie who was realistically haunted and battle-hardened by the events she endured 40 years ago, and created a powerful bond with her newly-introduced adult daughter Karen (Judy Greer) and teenage granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak).  I was at least hoping for some more emphasis on this particular angle.  

If anything, this sequel downplays that aspect, making Laurie and her family into almost an afterthought.  Though it's always great to see Curtis on the screen, especially in her defining role, she is given little to do here, and spends much of her time unconscious, or in a hospital bed.  True, the plot kind of forces her to do so, but that's really not what you expect, is it?  As for Karen and Allyson, they are minimized here as well.  Instead, the film's main focus is on an angry mob that has been whipped up by Myers survivor, Tommy Doyle (played here by Anthony Michael Hall).  The mob is made up of locals who are sick of the town's legacy around Halloween, and aren't smart enough to move out of town, or at least go on vacation when the holiday rolls around each year.  As they roam about the city streets and the local hospital looking for Michael, they endlessly chant "evil dies tonight".  Considering there's one more Halloween movie on the way next year that will supposedly end Michael's reign of evil once and for all (Yeah, right.), you already know walking into the movie whether or not the mob will be successful.

Since this is the middle entry of a planned trilogy, it can go one of two ways.  It can either set up some exciting revelations for when next year's Halloween Ends rolls around, or it can spin its wheels and largely serve as a film that does not advance much, and instead feels like diminished returns.   If you're this far in the review, you already know which path Green and his writers took.  There's very little to gain here, other than to be reunited with a lot of returning characters, pick up on some references to earlier movies that have been slipped in, and toss in a few new characters like an elderly couple and a gay couple that exist solely to add to the film's body count.  This is essentially an expertly made gore show.  It's been well shot, is well acted, and the filmmaking and editing is top shelf.  But it's all at the service of a screenplay that is no different from a half other dozen rip offs the first Halloween inspired throughout the 80s.  Strip away the high end production values, and you could easily mistake this thing from any cheap old things you used to find on the video shelf.

Maybe that's the whole appeal with certain viewers, but it felt like this movie was missing the point.  The reason why John Carpenter's film is remembered over 40 years later is because it was atmospheric as hell, tense, and truly frightening.  This film does not want to thrill audiences, it just wants to make them squirm with some truly gruesome kills, and then send them home 103 minutes later with nothing gained.  There is nothing scary, nothing exciting, and nothing new in general here.  Does that make this the worst film to hold the Halloween name?  Far from it.  There have been far worst attempts to continue or reinvent the Myers legacy over the years.  But that doesn't excuse this beautifully dressed up piece of exploitative sleaze.  

The same week this movie premiered, another slasher icon, the notorious Chucky Doll, got his own TV series on the SyFy Channel.  And while it's not perfect, it is a better representation of updating an iconic monster, developing him, and expanding its world and story.  And while only one episode has aired, it already did a much better job than Halloween Kills has done with living up to its famous name and legacy.


Friday, October 08, 2021

No Time to Die

Given the numerous documented problems that have plagued the production of No Time to Die, combined with a nearly 3-hour running time, it's quite amazing just how engrossing this latest James Bond entry truly is.  As a proper send off to Daniel Craig's time as the Super Spy, it certainly stumbles from time to time, which is likely an aspect of the film's reported script trouble.  However, it always finds a way to get back on solid ground not much longer, always holds your attention, and is quite thrilling in the way only the best Bond films can be.

The film pays proper respect to the history of the franchise, while also giving us the somewhat grittier and human Bond that Craig has been perfecting over the years.  Craig's Bond has suffered, been beaten, and even shows signs of emotional pain and regret.  We get all of that here, plus plenty of the franchise's humor, some applause-worthy action scenes, and a villain who naturally wants to wipe out most of the world so that he can control part of it.  That all comes with the territory, but there are some surprises here, making this one of the few entries in this series that you might actually want to avoid spoilers.  Director Cary Joji Fukunaga (2017's It: Chapter 1) brings a great amount of style, knows how to keep the plot and the action moving fleetly during its extended running time, and gives us a film that both plays by traditions, while also throwing in some unexpected curves.

For example, No Time to Die does have the standard grand action opening as most Bonds do, but before that, we get a chilling flashback concerning the childhood of returning love interest, Madeleine Swan (Lea Seydoux).  It's a hint that even though she is currently living a life of romance with Bond in Italy, their happiness will not last long.  Indeed, the evil organization Spectre is on their tail, and after we get their excellently choreographed escape, Bond puts Madeleine on a train, vowing that they will never see one another again, and five years later, he is so off the grid that MI6 have basically written him off as being dead.  Another Agent by the name of Nomi (Lashana Lynch) now holds the title of 007, and Bond seems content trying to leave the world and his old life behind him.

Naturally, retirement is not going to come easy for James, as he is tracked down CIA Operative Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), who sends him on a mission to Cuba.  The details of said mission lead to Bond being forced back into the game, interacting with rookie agent Paloma (Craig's Knives Out co-star Ana de Armas, who makes the most of her limited screen time here), and ultimately uncovering a villain's plan to use a bioweapon that could cause world-wide catastrophe.  Said villain is the wonderfully named Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek), who despite having the proper villain's lair and plan, is pretty low energy, and is probably the most forgettable aspect of the film, sadly.  Oh, and Christoph Waltz gets to come back as Blofeld, and he seems to be in total Hannibal Lecter mode for his big scene, complete with a high-tech containment cell.  Where it all leads to are some of the biggest personal stakes that Bond has ever had to contend with, which naturally will not be revealed here.

In all honesty, the best aspect of this latest entry is not the gadgets, the action, or the exotic settings, despite all three being displayed beautifully here.  It's the film's ability to surprise.  This being the 25th Bond film, there's obviously a formula at work here that's as reliable as the one the Marvel Studio implements in their movies.  What makes it work is that the movie doesn't go out of its way to surprise.  It kind of sneaks up on you, because it also plays by traditions as well.  It's a wonderful blend of giving the fans the expected beats, while also adding more emotion and personal investment than there's probably ever been in a Bond movie.  It allows Craig to give what is probably the most emotional portrayal of the character ever captured on film, while also giving him plenty of opportunities to display what has made him a fan favorite since he took on the role.

Not only that, but it mixes things up in a smart way, not so severely that I think many fans will be crying foul, but also just enough that it will definitely be taking them out of their Comfort Zone just a little when certain things are revealed during the course of the story.  This does lead to some select scenes that do hint at the numerous script problems the film had during production, including not having the script finished while they were shooting it.  But, every time I thought the movie was making a wrong turn, it would recover with a wonderful action sequence, some exciting development, or a quip that is genuinely funny and proper Bond.  It nudges things in new directions, rather than taking hard swerves, and it knows just how much to push.

No Time to Die
manages to not only be the sendoff that Craig deserved, but just simply a strong standalone entry in the venerable series.  Even with an extended running time, it's just as thrilling as the best entries, rarely drags, and given everything that could have gone wrong, has managed to avoid most shortcomings to be a truly satisfying entertainment. 


Saturday, October 02, 2021

The Many Saints of Newark

The poster for The Many Saints of Newark asks "Who Made Tony Soprano?", and series fans may be a bit disappointed that Tony is not the central focus of the long-awaited film prequel to The Sopranos TV series.  Rather, the focus is on an important figure in his life, and that person's influence on him as a young man that led to where we saw him as the series began.  

Fans may also be somewhat disappointed by the somewhat cluttered and disorganized storytelling on display here.  The screenplay by series creator David Chase (who co-wrote it with Lawrence Konner) tries to cram a lot into a two hour time frame, and perhaps was not used to the time restrictions that a feature film provides over a series of episodes.  He does his best with what he's been given, and the performances on display are as strong as they were on the show, so there is plenty to admire here.  At the center of it all is the excellent lead performance by Alessandro Nivola as Dickie Moltisanti, the father to one of the main characters from the show.  This movie takes us back to the time period of the late 60s and early 70s, where Tony Soprano was growing up, and idolized Dickie as not just a father figure, but also someone to follow and emulate.

We're introduced to Dickie when he is at the top of the Mob World, and dealing with a number of issues in his personal life.  There's the issue with his father (Ray Liotta), having just recently married a much younger Italian woman (Michela De Rossi), and brings her to America to be his trophy wife.  He's also slowly starting to watch his influence slip away a little in the crime world, as a young black man who initially works under him named Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom, Jr.) eventually decides that he doesn't want to work for a white mob boss, and creates his own crime network that violently clashes with Dickie's.  All of this is observed by a young Tony, first as a child where he is played by William Ludwig, and later as a teen by Michael Gandolfini.  With his father (Jon Bernthal) in prison, and his mother (an excellent Vera Farmiga) always on his case about something, it's not surprising to learn that the kid is drawn into Dickie's world that is seemingly comprised of control, money and respect.

And these are just the main plots that The Many Saints of Newark tries to cover.  The movie also wants to hint at future developments that fans can recognize, touch on race riots and relations, focus on Dickie feeling genuine remorse for some of his more violent actions during the course of the film, and wanting to "do good" in order to make up for them, show some of Tony's early attempts at crime or organized gambling, leading to multiple school suspensions, and talk about the politically and heavily charged time period that the story is set.  To say that the screenplay has a lot on its plate would be an understatement, and while it's not always successful at balancing all these plots and ideas, the resolutions to them are quite successful, and I found myself attached to these characters and performances.  They are what drew me through any shortcomings, and the movie has been beautifully shot, with more than a few standout performances.

The one that is sure to resonate with most fans is that of Michael Gandolfini as the teenage Tony Soprano.  While casting the son of the original actor in the role sounds like a bad example of stunt casting, he is able to create a believable portrayal of a young man who is drawn into a world he actually knows little about.  We watch him evolve to a young kid who is quite curious about the world around him, and slowly evolves into the man that he will become.  He starts out small with arranging a small gambling ring with some of his fellow students at school, but before long, he's lifting an ice cream truck.  The movie is smart to play up the somewhat tragic trajectory of the character, and the audience is forced to just helplessly watch.

But it is Moltisanti as Dickie who rightfully makes and carries the film.  We get to see some shocking bouts of violence and anger within the man, but we also get to see the charming side that makes people want to follow him, as well as the personal struggles that he feels about his actions.  We get to see how the guilt slowly eats away at him, and how he genuinely does want to be a positive influence on his community, but he is probably beyond hope  In one of his late scenes in the film, he breaks down crying at his desk at work for reasons that will not be stated here, and it's the heartbreaking topper to the character's arc.  Also good are the various scenes where he visits his uncle in prison (also Ray Liotta, in a dual role).  The figure of the uncle and his relationship with Dickie is fascinating, because the uncle is in prison for murder, yet acts as kind of a moral compass, having made the kind of mistakes Dickie is currently making, and trying desperately to make him see.

It's these elements and performances that make The Many Saints of Newark worth watching, and why I'm recommending it, despite its obvious flaws.  It still has the performances and emotional power that fans remember, and in it's own way, it's quite compelling.  You just wish they had more time to tell this story in smaller segments like before.


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