No Time to Die



We saw the long-awaited James Bond film recently. And not surprisingly, I began this review with the wrong title, not that it matters. The films are formulaic and could easily be titled “James Bond 1, James Bond 2,” in the style of the Fast and Furious enterprise.

 

So, to recap, we now have: Die Another Day, Live and Let Die, No Time to Die and Tomorrow Never Dies

 

and the related: License to Kill and A View to a Kill.

 

Sheesh, has anyone considered making a parody called, “Die, Already?” Well, hold onto that thought. I’ll try hard not to spoil anything.

 

But the title is not the only thing that makes these films memorable. Think back to the music that begins each journey into Bond’s world - shaken, not stirred. Music, after all, rivets Bond films into the soundtrack of their time, with only the hottest current pop stars invited to attend.

 

I believe Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die” is the ultimate score. In Paul’s typically schmaltzy, Uncle Albert melodic style, augmented by Sir George Martin’s orchestral genius, it lures you in for a close look at the coming explosion of sound, a wall of pounding chaos best accompanied on stage by fireworks.

 

Shirley Bassey’s “Goldfinger” comes to mind, and Adele’s Oscar winning “Skyfall,” but Madonna is pretty much forgotten for “Die Another Day.”

 

In No Time to Die we have Billy Eilish and brother Finneas co-authoring the title song, performed in her about-to-fall-asleep style, but actually using her pipes in a couple of places and singing more like Carly Simon did in “Nobody Does it Better.” Time will tell whether Billy will be remembered or fade quickly from her minutes of fame in our social media pandemic reality.

 

This is a very long film at almost three hours. In fact, it is the longest Bond film, and it feels like it, but it has enough action, chases, sub plots and betrayals to keep it interesting.

 

Ralph Fiennes is back again in the roll of “M,” casually referred to here by Bond as Mallory. He played Gareth Mallory when Judi Dench was M in Skyfall. Also returning is Ben Whishaw as “Q” (for Quartermaster by the way), with the usual array of gadgets that always seem about to explode when first examined. Q has a secret (to the audience) that is delicately revealed in this appearance. He played an amazing rendition of Uriah Heep in 2019’s The Personal History of David Copperfield.

 

One of the greatest arch-villains in the history of Bond films returns from his last appearance, incarcerated in Silence of the Lambs style, caged and shackled within an ultra-super-max security setting. Ernst Stavro Blofeld has been around for almost sixty years as the head of the evil organization SPECTRE, played by such notables as Donald Pleasance and Telly Savalas. But Christoph Waltz brings his sinister best to this role with his taunting, German accent-laced mind games.

 

For Bond fans who relish seemingly inhuman villains, like “Jaws” in Moonraker, here we have Cyclops. Use your imagination, but his character is the source of the inevitable Bond puns we’ve come to love, but not really expect all that much from Daniel Craig.

 

Locations are stunning, from Italy to Norway, Jamaica to Cuba (faked sets). There are so many bad guys it’s hard to keep track, but ultimately Rami Malek as Lyutsifer Safin takes top honors as a self-proclaimed God who, despite his vast wealth and trendy technology, can’t make it to the dermatologist for a much-needed dermabrasion.

 

There are several strong female co-stars in No Time to Die along with the ever-present Moneypenny. One, an agent (Lashana Lynch as Nomi) under the direction of M, another seemingly ditsy newbie (Ana de Armas as Paloma) with surprisingly refined skills and a dress held in place by superglue, and ultimately a love interest (Lea Seydoux as Madeleine), since at the end of the day this is a love story, as are all Bond films.

 

 

No Time to Die (2021) runs 2 hours, 43 minutes and is rated PG-13.

 

Cry Macho

Last night we saw Clint Eastwood’s final film. Again. I guess if you’re a lifelong Eastwood fan, you’re so enamored of him that you’re willing to overlook much to share a fictional adventure with your favorite guy. I get it. I’d follow 90-year-old William Shatner anywhere in the universe, and some think that’s pretty sad. But if there’s one takeaway from Cry Macho, it’s the wise soliloquy Eastwood delivers to his traveling companion about the pointless nature of being “macho.” This, from one of the most macho guys ever to “make his day” on the silver screen. Cry Macho is not a coming-of-age film, it’s a clash of ages, within the leading man and between costars. Where do you go to see what your future holds?

So, let’s save both of us some time and click here to read my review of 2018’s The Mule. Not much has changed, except Clint’s age. He is now 91, but to his credit, he’s still producing and directing feature films. This is another script written by Nick Schenk, based on a 1975 novel by Richard Nash. Schenk authored The Mule as well, proving that sometimes success is comprised of who you know, not what you know, since he clearly can’t write.

 

Clint is a legendary rodeo star, derailed in his career by a broken back in 1979. His friend and rodeo manager Howard Polk (Dwight Yoakum) props him up through his years of subsequent struggles, until the time comes to call in a favor. He needs Clint to retrieve his now thirteen-year-old son from his Mexican mother’s clutches. The boy has become a pawn in a power struggle between the divorced couple over control of financial assets.

 

It immediately gets confusing, because the film is set in 1979, then fast forwards only one year. Is Clint supposed to be his younger self? He sure doesn’t look it. There are lots of stunt doubles employed in the making of this film. Clint on horseback is approximated at one point by a ground level camera, looking longingly at his shoulder-up profile against the background of a clear blue western sky, bouncing up and down. If I were to guess, they shot this outside a Walmart on a coin-operated pony ride. What? Another quarter? Come on Clint, sit up straight in the saddle!

 

The son, Rafo, played by Eduardo Minett, whose only other acting credits are from two Mexican TV series, tries hard but fails to deliver, carrying around a pet rooster named Macho throughout the film. The cock-fighting little beast eventually becomes Clint’s pet after the bird attacks and disables an incompetent thug who’s been pursuing the boy and old man as they attempt to reach the US border. That’s right, a rooster defeats the bad guys, not Clint. At first glance, Minett appears to be attempting a Spanish accent with lines like, “I hate jooo,” but he seems to be the real deal based on his acting career.

 

Dwight Yoakum, plays Rafo’s estranged father, long divorced from the boy’s lush of a mother, Leta, played by forty-year-old Chilean actress Fernanda Urrejola, the female equivalent of the cliché Mexican drug cartel kingpin character from The Mule. Yoakum wears a ten-gallon hat to cover up his weird, long gray hair, and a bulging duster to cover up his bulky body. Yoakum has quite a musical career, and numerous film credits, but he’s lost his luster. Maybe he and Clint are buddies. Or maybe Yoakum’s appearance here provides additional support for the movie’s theme of what it means to be an aging man.

 

Clint appears to have a thing for Mexican women. He visited Latina prostitutes while south of the border in his last film. This time, the ancient Gringo clearly “still has it,” at least in this script, attracting the attention of Marta, played by Natalia Travern, whose age is guessed to be mid-forties. She is famously protective of that information. But the 45-50-year age gap between Eastwood and his leading ladies is both expected and comical. In a final scene, he and Marta dance closely in her darkening roadside diner, and it looks like she’s holding his skeleton upright. As is usually the case, Clint “gets the girl,” though in reality, he’s now getting the grandmas. At least he keeps his shirt on in this film.

 

As we walked out of the theater, having taken two brief naps, I felt both refreshed and strangely like I had inhabited the mind of a 91-year-old. The plodding pace of the film was a long, slow ride into the sunset by one of the icons of yesteryear. Eastwood never had a lot of range as an actor, he was just reliably Clint for decades. We don’t always get to witness our favorite stars in their later years, they just fade away. To be productive and engaged in a career that he loved up until the bitter end is both a tribute to himself and a gift to his fans. This is where you go to see what your future holds.

 

Cry Macho (2021) runs 1 hour, 44 minutes and is rated PG-13.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Marvel fans are pushing this film to huge box office receipts. I’m not sure it’s deserved. I recommend that you see Iron Man 3 before seeing this movie. There’s a major cameo, more of a supporting role really, that the audience got audibly excited upon reveal. It was lost on me due to my incomplete Marvel viewing history. But now that the Avengers: Endgame wrapped the latest creative phase within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there’s a need for new heroes, so here we go.

This is the first Marvel Asian superhero, and a wonderful casting opportunity for Asian actors. We’re starting to see lots of crossover among fan favorites like Awkwafina, Michelle Yeoh, and Henry Golding and were certain Golding was in this film, but apparently we are suffering from movie trailer confusion. I was convinced that Benedict Wong from Dr. Strange was among the cast members in Shang-Chi but it was actually Alfred K. Chow. Can you see how I got confused? That’s Wong on the right.  Speaking of Dr. Strange, I’m not a fan of “superheroes” who spend a lifetime mastering mystical arts. The spinning circle of sparks from Strange is used heavily here. It has been argued that Tony Stark is not a legitimate superhero, but he’s so super-intelligent, witty and able to create ad hoc enhancements to his Iron Man suit that I let it slide. 

 

This is a dysfunctional family get together, if you can call ninja attacks to steal family jewels an invitation to Daddy’s house. Daddy is Xu Wenwu (Tony Chiu-Wai Leung,) who happens to be one thousand years old, a brutal Warlord tamed by his love for Xialing, who is played by Meng‘er Zhang. They leave their combative ways behind to raise Shaun (Simu Liu) and Li (Fala Chen), but following Xialing’s death, both kids undergo assassin training to do Daddy’s bidding. Many years later they have gone their separate ways, but reunite to battle dragons and prevent soul-sucking demons from empowering a world-ending “Dweller in Darkness.”

 

I’m not giving much away here. The legends are so complicated that the on-screen action has to stop while things are explained, allegedly for the characters, but mostly for the audience. I guess this is preferable to an eight-hour film that follows the writing adage, “show, don’t tell,” but a more sophisticated script should be able to accomplish this without disrupting the story.

 

I’m also not a fan of dragons, especially the ones that let you ride them. I know, I know…Pandora, Harry Potter, Pete, I’m in the minority here. So let’s talk about Awkwafina instead. She’s great for comic relief, but she crosses the line in Shang-Chi as a suddenly brilliant archer on the battlefield.

 

I’m being way too negative about this movie. The opening martial arts battle on board an articulated bus would be great even if not running without brakes through the streets and hills of San Francisco. Other fights are amazingly choreographed scenes of unarmed weaponry-based Kung Fu. Simu Liu trains extensively in martial arts and stunt work, and it shows.

 

 

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) runs 2 hours, 12 minutes and is rated PG-13.



Candyman

The multi-talented Jordan Peele is back with another great horror film, a sequel to the 1992 film of the same name. Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing project is the setting for both films, though the area has gentrified following the tear down of the failed low-income housing experiment in 2011. Now we find loft-dwelling affluent residents who are unaware of the legend that grew out of racist violence in the past.

Those of us who grew up in Chicago will appreciate the locations used in Candyman. And in the 1970s,  if you ever wandered the wrong direction from Butch McGuire’s tavern, you quickly found you had left one of the nicest areas in the city and arrived in one of the worst.

 

Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is an emerging artist living with his socially savvy and successful girlfriend Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris). Anthony’s quest for a new artistic direction takes him down a rabbit hole of local legend, where he inadvertently summons forth a mirror-dwelling monster and, in a conversation with his mother, discovers the truth about his own past. Of note is that Vanessa Williams plays Anne-Marie McCoy in both films.

 

Jordan Peele has mastered the horror/suspense genre, breaking out of his predominantly TV niche, as actor, director and writer, with his award winning Get Out in 2017, and the much anticipated Us in 2019. Candymanemploys the same dark cinematography that feels throughout like something is about to happen. The musical score is intense, but not disruptive. Throw in the effective plot device in Candyman – will they say his name five times? – and the edge of your seat finds you to be a frequent visitor.

 

Peele attempted a reboot of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone series that I found somewhat disappointing. Serling’s shoes are impossible to fill, especially as the narrator. The new stories lacked the impact of the originals back when audiences were more easily shocked and surprised. But Peele’s film work is where he’s hit his stride.

 

Paper shadow puppets are used in Candyman to convey some back story elements, including the history of grad student Helen Lyle, whose role in the first film bridges into the subsequent tale. This is a graphic and bloody ninety minutes worth seeing if you can’t get enough of that. I’m feeling the need for a more uplifting movie, though the Halloween season is directly ahead, and it appears Michael Myers is back with Jamie Lee Curtis once again.

 

Candyman (2021) runs 1 hour, 31 minutes and is rated R.

The Protege

My first question when we saw this movie was, “Is Samuel L. Jackson in every movie coming out of Hollywood?” It seems that way, and a quick check shows that he’s been in no less than twenty films in the last five years, with more in production. He’s one busy actor!

Here he stars as “Moody,” alongside Maggie Q as Anna and Michael Keaton as “Rembrandt,” in a film about, well, I’m not really sure how to describe it without spoiling it, but there sure is a lot of shooting, fighting and killing. The characters are all bad guys, going after other bad guys, a few of whom report to a generic off-screen Mr. Big who pulls their strings and of whom everyone is afraid. There are several plot lines. One is Anna’s origin story, with flashbacks to Viet Nam. Another evolves as the movie gets underway, probing the relationship between her and Moody. But the main story has to do with the mysterious identity of Mr. Vohl (Mr. Big.)

 

I’ve struggled with Michael Keaton as an actor ever since he turned from Mr. Mom into Batman. Comedians often make great actors. The comic persona that masks their inner turmoil can also be tapped into for great acting inspiration. In this role, Keaton is a mild-mannered, skilled psychopath who spends time laying out his opponent’s options and chances for success. And as hard as they try to ignite some on-screen chemistry between him and Q (so what’s her name, anyway? It’s Quigley,) it’s just not convincing. Really, you’re interested in this 70-year-old who’s trying to kill you and who just spoke the dumbest line in the movie? (I won’t give it away.) There was lots of body double work for Keaton's part.


One note, the stunt that involves the main character plunging several stories down into the atrium of a building using a firehose as a bungie cord has been overdone.

 

The unsmiling Anna is a bit hard to accept as the world’s greatest assassin. She’s sort of scrawny and lacks the physicality of Charlize Theron or Lucy Liu. But she’s something of a superstar in Asia, and here broadens the stable of available Asian actors as Hollywood diversifies. 

 

The Protégé held my attention, despite some really curious camera work at times, low steady-cam shots that were dizzying and served no purpose. 

 

Director Martin Campbell has a lengthy portfolio of occasionally successful films, including Vertical Limit, Goldeneye and Casino Royale. I don’t think this one will earn him any honors.

 

The Protégé (2021) runs 1 hour, 49 minutes and is rated R.

Free Guy

It was a long week that needed to end with some light entertainment. We watched in Florida and discovered our daughter and son-in-law were watching at the same time over a thousand miles away, despite the time zone difference. We all agreed that Free Guy was surprisingly better than expected.

Ryan Reynolds plays Guy, who comes to be known as blue shirt guy, a bank teller living in a video game with his pet goldfish. The action toggles between real world players and the avatars they choose to represent them in a complex virtual setting. There’s lots of nerd humor when unexpected interruptions in actual reality distract from the game play.

 

Throughout the film I was drawing parallels with The Truman Show. Ryan Reynolds’ childlike sense of wonder and acceptance of his Groundhog Day existence in a video game is in fact a role into which Jim Carrey could easily have been substituted. But Reynolds has built a reputation for rapid fire comedic punchlines in the Deadpool franchise, and the cleaned-up version in this movie works equally well. I couldn't help but imagine the song Stayin' Alive being played while Guy strolls down a street filled with explosions and general chaos.

 

The graphics in Free Guy are astounding, nonstop, and exquisitely familiar to gamers, with lots of small effects and references they’ll appreciate. For the uneducated, at least look up the video game version of “tea bagging” in the Urban Dictionary for a good laugh. Also understand that NPC is an acronym for Non-Player Character. A series of nods to Marvel and Star Wars, and help from a few of Reynolds’s acting friends is no accident. Production company 20th Century Studios is a subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company. There’s even a nice cameo by a favorite celeb who passed away after filming.

 

There are far too many ways to spoil the fun, so I’ll just say that the action is continuous and beautifully staged, Reynolds and Co-star Jody Comer (Killing Eve’s Villanelle) work well together, and ultimately this is a love story, a buddy story and a message movie. You really can do anything you want, even if you don’t wear sunglasses. Guy’s best friend, Buddy, is played by Lil Rel Howery. You’ll recognize him from Get Out in a similarly loyal, supporting and amusing role.

 

So, substitute Free City for Oasis, Antwan for Christof, toss in some music by Mariah Carey, mix them all together and ask if you’re “Ready, player one?,” and get ready to enjoy the ride.

 

Free Guy (2021) runs 1 hour, 55 minutes and is rated PG-13. 

Jungle Cruise

If Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Emily Blunt were along for the ride on my own Jungle Cruise in 1966, they would have been just two more enthusiastic passengers. Here, the pairing of these two popular and busy actors enhances the experience nicely, along the lines of Johnson and Karen Gillan in the most recent Jumanji movies. In fact Gillan could have easily played the role of Dr. Lily Houghton in Jungle Cruise, but it might have unnecessarily confused the two films. They have a quite similar feel, one that works well with Johnson’s ability to be funny and massively muscular simultaneously.

Skipper Frank Wolff (Johnson) is the victim of his own successes and failures as an Amazon River pilot in 1916, abused by Paul Giamatti as Nilo, a corrupt and competing boat tour operator in a jungle river port that looks like something straight out of Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s a setting in which everyone is running intersecting scams, and the launching point for a voyage up-river to retrieve the petals of a magic tree. Myths and legends are explained in cumbersome detail when Houghton, her much less courageous brother and Frank eventually reach the source of their quest.

 

In Jungle Cruise, Blunt gets to speak in her natural British accent instead of that of the American Evelyn Abbott from The Quiet Place. But you do expect her to issue her patented breathy “Run!” while being chased by stereotypical jungle savages. No need, The Rock will head them off and save the clearly capable pants-wearing damsel. Really?

 

Criticism of the fifty-year-old Disney theme park attraction led to an update that eliminated racial stereotypes and animal cruelty. That seems to be somewhat ignored in the film, but casting the mysteriously ethnic Johnson helps balance the equation. Is there nothing this man can’t do? And if his squeaky clean (granted self-promoted) reputation can be believed, he has somehow transitioned from WWF superstar to one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood, all while being kind, exposing his inner child (he loves Disneyland) and clearly having a ton of fun along the way. Johnson is Executive Producer for an excellent “Behind the Attractions” series on the Disney Plus streaming service that examines in fascinating detail the history and evolution of rides like Jungle Cruise.

 

Casting the always creepy Jesse Plemons as the psychotic German prince and evil protagonist works perfectly. Plemons has made his sinister mark in Fargo, The Irishman, Game Night, and a memorable Black Mirror episode called “USS Callister.” You’ll hate him here too. He is a blonde haired, blue eyed devil.

 

This is a very fun ride, the latest in Disney’s efforts to turn favorite theme park attractions into feature films. A remake of 2003’s The Haunted Mansion is in the works. What next? Careful Disney, remember The Black Hole? They have acquired Marvel and Star Wars. No need to dig so deep.

 

A warning to concerned parents, or perhaps grandparents. For a PG-13 rated film, this movie has fairly graphic violence, intensity, attacks by frightening mythical and real creatures, un-dead conquistadors and all of the expected action of a WWF body slamming skipper. But if the kiddies can handle Pirates of the Caribbean, they have been desensitized appropriately to handle this.

 

Jungle Cruise (2021) runs 2 hours, 7 minutes and is rated PG-13.

Don’t Breathe 2

We did our homework last night, renting Don’t Breathe, a 2016 horror film about an elderly, blind war veteran who is seriously disturbed and quite skilled. The movie rests on the notion that in the absence of sight his heightened senses give him the edge, especially in the dark. Thus, don’t breathe! He’ll hear you.

In the first film, his home in a deteriorated neighborhood near Detroit is the target for a trio of no-good teens. After a series of profitable home invasion scores, they meet their match in the reclusive homeowner. The teens are unaware that the accidental death of his daughter led him down a Godless path to kidnapping, murder and rape. “The Blind Man” is a monster played by Stephen Lang, a respected actor with screen and stage credits going back to 1981.

 

Lang is back in Don’t Breathe 2 as Norman Nordstrom. Same guy, same neighborhood, different house. He has a name now, and we discover that he was once a Navy Seal. Other than a brief flashback to the previous film, this story is all new, and as is the case with many gore-filled sequels, taken to the next level of graphic violence. At least the victimization of women is no longer the backbone of the film. Or is it? The “woman” in this incarnation is eight-year-old Phoenix, played by twelve-year old newcomer Madelyn Grace. Nordstrom trains her to escape and outwit potential assailants, a sort of survival boot camp that keeps her isolated but not entirely imprisoned. Good thing, since a group of dishonorably discharged psychopaths are on the prowl and trafficking human organs.

 

If that sounds ridiculous, it is, but somehow it works and that’s a credit to the direction of Rodo Sayagues, returning here and building on what he learned with Evil Dead in 2013 and the first Breathe movie in 2016. He clearly relishes what I refer to as the pornographic gore and violence (PGV) genre. His signature cracked glass ceiling is back in this movie, probably because it’s such an effective audio and visual tension builder. Get-crack-off-crack-the-crack-glass-crack-before-crack-you-crack-fall. Oops, too late. 

 

Overhead shots are another favorite, also functional framing devices likely created with the use of drones. Much of both films is shot in the dark, or simulated dark using filters and nicely lit sets. This immerses the audience in the blind protagonist’s world and is used to level the playing field when the power is cut or switched off. Smoke and fog lend additional eerie opportunities and a chance for silent pursuit to result in Norman emerging from the fog in well-lit over-shoulder shots.

 

But this film, like the eight films in the Saw franchise are not for everyone. Officially known as the “Splatter” genre, not to be confused with the “Slasher” genre more typically popular around Halloween, this is not for kids. So, imagine our dual horror, one because of what we were watching on screen, and the other due to the small children in the next row some loving parents decided to bring along on date night. The kiddies were plugged into tablet gaming systems so loud we could hear them through their headphones. And it is well known that kids never look up when told not to, so tonight’s outing should keep a therapist busy in a few years. Justice would have the parents reliving Don’t Breathe 2 nightly for a few weeks when the kids can’t sleep.

 

Don’t Breathe 2 (2021) runs 1 hour, 38 minutes, ten minutes longer than its predecessor and is also rated R.

Old

Let’s start by mentioning that there’s a character in this movie named “Mid-Sized Sedan.” He’s a rapper with dreamy eyes whose most frequent line is: “Damn.” Note, he doesn’t even say it with an exclamation mark. I laughed out loud more than once at his delivery. He doesn’t get upset, even when his naked girlfriend goes for a swim, washes up dead and then decomposes to dust and bones in a few hours.

Most of what you need to know about this movie is presented in the trailer. To reveal more would spoil the actually clever ideas and the patented surprise ending. There’s nothing like knowing there’s going to be a major plot twist at the end of two hours to ruin the hundred minutes leading up to that point.

 

Maybe the problem with M. Night Shyamalan’s films, ever since his very successful The Sixth Sense, is that he tackles writer, director and producer roles simultaneously, in this case a screenplay based on a graphic novel called Sandcastle. Perhaps the jump from graphic novel to horror film was too large. The dialogue in this film is atrocious. The characters are ridiculous, perhaps intentionally. They all suffer from secret disorders, either medical or psychological. But they’ve all been enticed to visit an exclusive tropical vacation destination that has a “secret” beach at the end of a one-way bus ride. Oh, look, the driver is M. Night Shyamalan! Appearing in your own movie is just grotesque, unless done subtly, a la Alfred Hitchcock, or if you’re Clint Eastwood. More on that later.

 

Signs, Unbreakable, Split, and The Sixth Sense are M. Night’s best efforts. Of those, only Split broke out of the 1999-2000 stride that he hit with his suspenseful, signature twisted ending formula, and that was largely due to the acting by James McAvoy. Every other film can be considered just another attempt to recreate the success of the first.

 

There were numerous tight shots in Old, so much so that characters fell out of frame. Deliberate? Unknown, but another overused technique was the over-the-shoulder shot from behind an aging character in order to surprise us with a radical change in appearance. That’s just clumsy. Walk out from behind a rock, pop up from a crashing wave, don’t just stand facing away from the camera.

 

From the trailer you’re already aware that the cast of characters on a beautiful, magical beach is aging at a rapid rate. As a result, any cut or scrape heals almost instantly. Why then is Mid-Size Sedan getting nose bleeds that won’t stop? This is never explained. And have you noticed that the Hollywood nose bleed has become the hallmark of something far more serious going wrong, as if your nose is the barometer of unseen maladies?

 

I’ll chalk this disaster up to the negative effects of a one-year pandemic lockdown for M. Night. But I think he’s suffering from something far worse – his own notion that he’s amazing. Don’t box office receipts eventually take care of that? Maybe one decent film every four attempts can keep you bankrolled in Hollywood, especially if it’s your money and you’re the Producer.

 

One casting note: most stars are relatively unknown, but if you’re a fan of Clint Eastwood’s daughter Francesca, she has a small role. Her roles will likely remain small.

 

We are eventually left with two aged survivors, one a six-year-old who looks fifty, talking about how surprised his Aunt will be when she sees him. Even more surprising is that his intellect and education level aged with him without benefit of schooling. So, give us a magic beach and solve the mounting college debt problem. But start this movie with an awkward conversation between aged child and Aunt, then flash back. If M. Night put the plot twist at the beginning of his film it might be a welcome change. Welcome to Fantasy Island!

 

 

Old (2021) runs 1 hour, 48 minutes and is rated PG-13.

The Green Knight

Are you a fan of the legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table? This period piece immerses you in the fog and frightful existence of Middle Ages England. While Arthur and Guinevere are referred to in the credits simply as King and Queen, the unmistakable Round Table sets the stage for their mostly silent oversight of the damp and dark court where some of the action takes place. 

This is Camelot as you’ve never imagined it. Enter the Green Knight, a green-skinned, green-haired Groot type who rides a green horse right up to the Round Table and challenges any taker to a deadly game on Christmas Day. One caveat: any injury delivered to the Green Knight in hand-to-hand combat will be returned in kind exactly one year later. Most Knights take one step back at this point and leave it to a newbie, the king’s nephew. Without delving too far into legend, Morgana, Arthur’s half-sister is mostly off screen as some sort of evil enchantress, acting on behalf of her son as he begins his quest to become the knight, Sir Gawain.

 

The pace of the film is slow, the costuming reminiscent of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but utterly lacking humor. The Chaucerian feel of the journey, or perhaps more rooted in poetry like Homer’s Odyssey, leaves you wanting to shower by the end of the film. They were very dirty times, and Director/Writer David Lowery brought them to life nicely, with ghosts, giants, thieves and witches lurking in the woods and hills along Gawain’s (Dev Patel) quest. As with other Knights, honor is tested along with valor, and the quest eventually is complete, but at what cost?

 

This is Patel’s first film since The Personal History of David Copperfield. His performance is solid, but more serious in this outing. Alicia Vikander, known for Ex Machina, is Gawain’s girlfriend and temptress, a dual role that has her playing both Essel and The Lady. Sean Harris, known for his roles as a recurring antagonist in the Mission Impossible franchise is an aging Arthur, somewhat lost in the fog, and struggling to remain larger than life. His soft-spoken honor shines through and provides a vector for the story line.

 

This movie has an art house feel, but leaves you with lingering thoughts back to the characters and the quest. It also makes you want to learn more.

 

 

The Green Night (2021) runs 2 hours, 10 minutes and is rated R.

 

Black Widow

I went into this film determined to count the number of hero falls. You know, like the one in this promo shot, where the actor lands from an impossibly long fall in a crouched position, as if absorbing the shock with one knee and one arm. This is the point at which my orthopedic surgeon would be reconstructing knees, ankles, an elbow, hips and one wrist, assuming I ever got out of traction for the multiple ruptured discs in my neck and back. But I’m no super hero. No, I’m not. 

And neither is the Black Widow. She’s just an extremely skilled assassin, Natasha Romanoff, trained in Russia and a member of the Avengers following defection. Scarlett Johansson has played the Black Widow in nine Marvel films beginning with 2010’s Iron Man 2, and is finally getting her own feature.

 

I feel this almost could have been called The Black Widow’s Little Sister. Yelena Belova plays a role almost equal to that of the title character. This was a generous decision on the part of Executive Producer Johansson. Natasha’s Mom and Dad are along for the ride too, or at least people who pretended to be Mom and Dad. 

 

It all begins in Ohio in 1995 when the sisters are six and eleven. The action starts almost immediately and pauses only occasionally throughout the film to give the audience a chance to catch their breath, and for some tender dialogue to play out on screen.

 

One of the first surprises in the movie was the screenwriter's recognition that hero falls have been over used. They are a running gag, the source of some inter-character banter in a few classic Marvel moments of humor. The sparingly used jokes always lend some fun to these very numerous movies. And the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) catalog is so extensive that some might be reluctant to dive into yet another origin story about a beloved character, but don’t hesitate.

 

The movie stands on its own and many backstory elements are explained. General Dreykov has a large mostly off-screen role in Black Widow. He is the creator of the “Red Room” where “Widows” are trained to be a human-trafficked global army of female assassins, mind-controlled from a floating fortress. His indestructible secret weapon, called Taskmaster, appears throughout the film and has a secret to reveal. It kind of feels like a James Bond plot at this point.

 

David Harbour plays Alexei, the Red Guardian, a Russian super-soldier answer to Captain America, and Rachel Weisz has a role as Melina, his wife. Florence Pugh is little sister Yelena Belova. Yelena, Milena, Belova, Romanov, the names get a bit confusing, but don’t become a distraction. 

 

Believe it or not, Don McLean’s song American Pie has a place in Black Widow. Those of us who lived through the overplaying of this song in 1971 still cringe when we hear it, but the lyrics, “That’ll be the day that I die,” factor into a key scene, so we’ll let it go.

 

Marvel fans will find much to love about this film. The action is non-stop with lots of explosions, amazing car chases, intricately choreographed fight scenes and locations including Morocco, Budapest, Rome and Georgia. The film feels much shorter than 133 minutes. Of course, stay beyond the credits.

 

 

Black Widow runs 2 hours, 13 minutes and is rated PG-13

The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard

Take the leading actors from 2017’s The Hitman’s Bodyguard (Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson), add Salma Hayek, Morgan Freeman and Antonio Banderas, and what have you got? Much less than you’d hope.

Hayek and Banderas have co-stared multiple times since Desperado in 1995, including voiceovers in 2011’s Puss ‘N BootsOnce Upon a Time in Mexico in 2003 and Oscar Nominated Pain and Glory in 2019. This film was a waste of their on-screen chemistry.

 

Ryan Reynolds has secured himself a one-man genre as a one-liner spewing action star, much like his character in the Deadpool franchise. He brings much of the humor to this film. Samuel L. Jackson is his usual F-bombing self, and Salma Hayek co-stars once again with her breasts. They are literally in a supporting role, commented on, fondled and used as weapons to lure bad guys. At age fifty-five she either has great genetics or they spent a fortune in makeup and post-production making her look much younger. It seemed she was competing with Jackson for most F-words, and I’d have to call it a draw.

 

There’s a ton of gunfire, explosions, car chases and fight scenes woven around a pretty ridiculous story with several subplots that add little to the whole. The reluctant trio set out to foil an angry Greek billionaire’s plot to destroy the EU’s power grid with a giant diamond encrusted Dremel tool and a USB drive full of viral computer code. By mid-film there are so many flavors of bad guys, mostly cliches, that it’s hard to recall how they all fit into the plot. This has all been done before, only better.

 

The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard runs 1 hour, 40 minutes and is rated R.

Cruella

The first thing to be aware of is that this is not a remake of any version of 101 Dalmatians. That was done in the 1996 live-action version with Glenn Close in the title role. A screenplay by John Hughes merits a second look at that incarnation of the 1961 children’s book of the same name. An attempt at a very unnecessary sequel resulted in 102 Dalmatians, also starring Close, a domestic box office money-loser and the reason there was no 103 Dalmatians. Close is behind the scenes in this latest Disney feature as an executive producer.

This is a prequel, the Cruella Deville origin story. We get to meet her as Estella, a troublesome young girl genius with very strange hair and an innate gift for design. We find out where the name of her evil alter ego originates and are introduced to several dalmatians that either have a very long lifespan or are easily replaceable. They return later in the film.

 

Two Emmas later (Stone and Thompson) we enter the world of high-fashion design dominated by The Baroness, a truly heartless character reminiscent of Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada.Once we flash forward to the adult Estella, the movie begins to feel a lot like the Prada story line, and according to my movie-watching wife Jeanne, there are tons of really cool dresses to be seen.

 

I was more focused on the “Baduns” from 1961, still named Horace and Jasper, and here reluctantly evolving from Estella’s crooked cohorts to Cruella’s henchmen. They are bumbling thieves, but far more likeable than their cartoon version. Their little dog Wink almost steals the show. He is a Chihuahua with an eye patch and a big attitude. Buddy, Estella’s dog is cute too, aging from an adorable pup to a scruffy sidekick, always in key shots paying attention to humans and scampering through crowds at parties.


Another character that caught my attention was the Panther De Ville, a classic luxury vehicle that was used as Cruella’s car in all three live action films. It is reminiscent of the Excalibur, produced in the 1970s, and it made me flinch to see it used in high-speed chases through the streets of London. I assume the resulting damage was CGI.

 

There are secrets revealed throughout the somewhat lengthy two plus hours film. The childhood segment went on a bit long, as did Estella’s transformation during the emergence of her wicked inner persona. A hint of kindness surfaces occasionally, which puts The Baroness in the true role as this movie’s ultimate villainess. Does Cruella have a heart after all? 

 

Both Stone and Thompson do a fine job. This was a fun movie, and there’s nothing to prevent taking the kiddies, though you might find yourself explaining that when good doesn’t triumph over evil, sometimes less evil triumphs over more evil. It’s a Disney movie, after all.

 

The setup for a sequel is firmly cemented during the final scene. Stay through the credits!

 

Cruella runs 2 hour, 14 minutes and is rated PG-13

 

 

A Quiet Place II

We were welcomed into the theater with promotional videos featuring Salma Hayek and John Krasinski, thanking theater goers for returning to the big screen to see their respective films. That felt both very welcoming and somewhat sad, as if we’re all castaways being slowly reintroduced to society. Adding to the out-of-a-coma feeling were trailers that advertised, “Coming in October of 2020,” or other long overdue dates. These reminders of our emergence were poignant and somehow personal. This is the second re-opening of Regal Theaters, and we can only hope that it’s for real this time.

But we are returning on Day 474, and in that respect, the one year break we endured waiting for the sequel to A Quiet Place felt oddly appropriate. We share so much with the Abbott family, having been isolated and pursued by a mostly invisible and menacing horror. Things have improved for us, but not for them, not at all. 

 

Krasinski reprises his role as Lee Abbott, but only for the duration of a flashback to “Day One.” Emily Blunt and the kids are all back, enjoying a tranquil summer afternoon when all Hell breaks loose. We get to see how the alien invasion begins, and how suddenly things turn south. Just as suddenly we join the family in their current attempt to survive, tip-toeing through fallen leaves that crunch dangerously and into the arms of “people not worth saving.” This is a modern-day War of the Worlds.

 

I’m not going to spoil anything by saying that the alien and human monsters in the film all have four limbs and a penchant for destroying human life that defies understanding. Of course, the small family does the expected worst thing possible, they split up, allowing scene-shifting directorial fun for Krasinski and his editors, and audio engineering pluses that alternate between the silence of Regan Abbott, the deaf daughter, to the super-sensitive hearing of the sound-seeking monsters. We get a good look at the monsters in this outing.

 

Each character in the film struggles with an inner psychological conflict if not an outward, physical one, the overcoming of which carries individual plot lines through the film. Sets are post-apocalyptic, the remnants of humanity reverting to barbaric genetic memory or leading tranquil lives in hippie-like communes. Somehow, the lights have remained on for over a year, despite T-Rex/Raptor/Alien creatures running amok with the strength to shred train cars and buildings.

 

I counted at least three scenes that caused me to jump in my seat. The silence contributes heavily to the setup for these Hitchcock-like moments. This is a great sequel, worth seeing, but if you haven’t seen the original, by all means get it done before seeing number two.

 

 

A Quiet Place II (2020) runs 1 hour, 37 minutes and is rated PG-13

Wrath of Man

For my first time venturing into a post-pandemic theater I chose a film that wouldn’t require my full attention. That attention was compromised by the angst of sitting with a group of unmasked strangers, in some cases one behind the other, perhaps two feet apart. This was despite Regal Theaters’ best efforts to assign seating when purchasing tickets online. People just can’t do this simplest of things, like sitting in the seat they selected. Ah, well, at least the theaters may survive. We’re all itching to do something normal like go to the movies.

If you’re a fan of Jason Statham, this will satiate your blood lust and desire for revenge porn. The photo I chose for this review is of his biggest smile during the two-hour feature produced by Guy Ritchie. More on Ritchie in my reviews of The Gentlemen and Aladdin. He has proven himself to be a successful screenwriter and producer for an untrained high school dropout. He has a penchant for violence and appears to favor tight closeups, as if considering eventual viewing on a TV screen. He has a long history with Jason Statham, having launched his acting career in his late 90s release of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.

 

Statham’s version of the unstoppable, almost super-heroic action star has him sauntering through scene after scene killing bad guys with ease and precision. He is clearly unhappy, and in Wrath of Man, that’s the motivating force behind his plot for revenge. He is a virtual Houdini, a zip-tied can of whoop-ass that keeps you on the edge of your seat because you’ve already seen him take out crews of inept armored car bandits and survive multiple gunshot wounds. He seemingly dusts off bullets like dandruff.

 

The script for Wrath of Man is initially quite weak, at least in the opening sequences when Statham, nicknamed “H,” applies and tests for a job as a driver at “The Depot,” the hub where Fortico Security’s armored cars return at the end of their pickups. It looks like home base from the TV show Taxi, and is populated by fellow drivers who all behave more like they’re in a prison yard than at work. New guys get viciously razzed, but H quickly applies his unsmiling, cold steel persona and has the boys wondering if he’s a dark horse. It’s a bit suspicious that he passes his entrance evaluation with exactly the seventy per cent required. He’s that in control, holding back and saving the good stuff for his first job. And that first job instantly lofts him to hero status at work.

 

Fellow drivers are also assigned goofy nicknames. “Bullet,” “Boy Sweat” and “Hollow Bob” are examples. The dialogue is juvenile and the banter is so over the top as to be ridiculous. But it does offer a couple of opportunities for mild laughs. There should have been more of those.

 

A missed opportunity is the presence of Dana, the lone badass girl driver played by Naimh Algar. She plays a relatively inconsequential role as H’s only love interest, a one-night stand solely for the purpose of interrogating her in the middle of the night at gunpoint. The role offered the possibility of a female costar with secret skills like those of Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde. But I guess there’s no sharing the lead with Statham. But wait, who’s that handsome young bad guy, the baddest bad guy, following a convoluted layered onion of bad guys throughout the movie? Why, it’s Clint Eastwood’s son Scott, who made his screen debut in Daddy’s Flags of our Fathers in 2006. He’s not Clint, but he has a future on the big screen.

 

Wrath of Man is worth seeing if you like the Ritchie/Statham formula for violence and male dominated plots. It seemed a bit long at two hours, but that was in part due to the droning, ominous musical score that never abates and becomes sort of corny and distracting. All things considered, two better “Wraths” come to mind, like The Wrath of Khan or The Grapes of Wrath. Smile, Jason, smile. It will make you seem even more sinister. You’re fast, you’re furious. We get it.

 

 

Wrath of Man runs 1 hour, 59 minutes and is rated R.

Koko di Koko da

Warning: this movie is not for relaxed or more nightmare prone viewers. And to think we paid to see this thing.

I guess the film did its job within the horror genre. It was intriguing, but so relentlessly perverse and horrifying I worried about sleeping through the night without night terrors or bizarre dreams of my own. Ok, now I have your interest.

 

If you liked 2019’s Midsommar, you’ll love Koko di Koko da, so named because of a melodic and seemingly simple fairy tale with a haunting tune and creatures that literally haunt the two main characters in the film. Think It’s a Small World After All with attack dogs and psychopaths. After those two films I’m just thinking Sweden is kind of a weird place. Some characters in this movie are puppets, others are just deranged incarnations we initially see on a music box that plays the title song. That gift, given to a young girl on her eight birthday becomes the nexus around which the parents’ try to work through their grief and repair their marriage following an allergic seafood reaction that kills the girl and almost finishes off the mom. It’s kind of a combination of The Blair Witch Project and Groundhog Day, seasoned with Cabin in the Woods.

 

The film definitely leaves its viewers on edge, trying to figure it all out, and a bit tired from reading some rather rapid subtitles. Yeah, it’s in Swedish. Oh, and there’s a white cat.

 

The movie is directed by Johannes Nyholm and stars Leif Edlund and Yiva Galon, but who cares. We don’t know them and probably won’t see them again, though they all seem pretty busy in the Swedish film industry. 

 

If you’re still curious you can find this movie on Amazon for $4.99.

 

Koko-Di, Koko-Da (2019) runs 1 hour, 29 minutes and is unrated.

The Sound of Metal

We might not have noticed this Amazon Original without a recommendation from viewers in Germany (Dankeschön!) In fact, the opening segment might have been off-putting, a documentary-like heavy metal musical segment from a band called Blackgammon playing an earsplitting track with a screaming vocal, incendiary guitar and intense percussion. I’m not sure if their sound qualifies as “screamo,” lacking perhaps the right punk influence, but the volume is way up there, and contributes to the story line.

But hang in there. Riz Ahmed plays Ruben Stone, a drummer who’s rapidly losing his hearing. A drug addict four years clean on the power of his relationship with Lu, played by Olivia Cooke, they tour with their band in a custom RV, supporting each other with healthy smoothies, exercise, dance and affection. This is after all, a love story, despite the tattoo on Ruben’s chest that reads, “Someone Kill Me.”

 

Ahmed is a British Pakistani actor, rapper and activist you might recognize from Four LionsJason Bourne and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. He was listed as one of Time’s 100 most influential people of 2017 on the strength of a nomination by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

 

Cooke starred in 2018’s Life Itself and TV work including Bates Motel and Vanity Fair.

 

The audio engineering in The Sound of Metal immerses you in the experience of losing your hearing. Unlike so many films that have a character repeat out loud the sign language being used, the viewer is as initially helpless as Ruben, and you feel his depression and frustration, especially as a musician. 

 

Following a recent ear infection I experienced a similar series of events shown when Ruben struggles to clear his ears and eventually sees an audiologist. But despite the time he spends benefiting from and contributing to a sequestered deaf community, the cochlear implant he chooses to fund with all of his worldly possessions is a brutal little procedure that he hopes will “fix” the problem that the deaf community doesn’t feel needs fixing. Embrace the stillness.

 

The Sound of Metal is thoughtful, well-acted and doesn’t resort to gratuitous sex, violence or cheap gimmickry. 

 

Written and directed by Darius Marder, this project may be an important addition to his small portfolio.

 

 

The Sound of Metal (2019) runs exactly 2 hours and is rated R.

 

 

Kajillionaire

Richard Jenkins is one of those familiar character actors you just can’t place. Most recently he had a lead role in The Last Shift, a mostly overlooked pandemic casualty from 2020. He has an eclectic film resume that includes The Shape of Water, Step Brothers, The Cabin in the Woods, White House Down and many others. In Kajillionaire he is Robert, father to the strangely named Old Dolio played by Evan Rachel Wood, and husband of Theresa, played by the almost unrecognizable Debra Winger. We know Wood most recently from her lead role in the series reboot of Westworld

 

These three are an essentially homeless family who wander through the streets of California looking for loose change, stealing mail and surviving day to day as career scammers. They rent office space attached to a business called Bubbles that oozes pink suds three times daily. They diligently scoop the foam from the adjoining wall in order to prevent damage and mold. Perhaps that value contributes to the owner’s tolerance of chronically late rent and unending promises of payment. Meanwhile, they live in superstitious fear of “the big one” and the electric power of frequent earthquakes.

 

Old Dolio has been raised more as a tool than a daughter. The family precisely splits the proceeds of scams three ways in a loveless business relationship. The parents only acknowledge 18 of their daughter’s 26 years, keeping her just short of adulthood, entirely dependent and constantly seeking emotional approval. Her husky-voiced, deadpan persona is that of a shell-shocked dumpster diver experiencing the world with a sense of forbidden wonder. Enter Miranda, an enthused random accessory encountered mid-heist on a turbulent airplane ride, and a possible casualty of her own parents’ dysfunctional relationship. Here the story takes on a new dimension as a love story that gives purpose and eventual resolution to the film.

 

This is a quirky low budget movie with an Indie feel, directed by Miranda July and with an Executive Producer credit by Brad Pitt. It showed up on a “best of 2020” list when searching for a movie to watch during our continuing theater blackout. It was $5.99 on Amazon, held our interest throughout and might gain traction once discovered.

 

 

Kajillionaire (2020) runs 1 hour 44 minutes and is rated R.

 

 

 

No Time to Die

We saw the long-awaited James Bond film recently. And not surprisingly, I began this review with the wrong title, not that it matters. The f...