No Time to Die

Wait, Felix is from Milwaukee?

Alright, then. We headed off to opening night of the latest, but not the greatest, edition to the Bond canon, which gives a well-publicized sendoff to Daniel Craig in the title role. The movie is, in my estimation, the second or third best of the Craig era, and right about tenth in my personal rankings in the series.

I don’t really have a full-blown review here, but I do have some notes from some texts I shared with one of our loyal readers. First off, Daniel Craig is bored. This shows up intermittently throughout the film when he isn’t doing his best to pretend otherwise. Unlike the aging prizefighter looking for that last paycheck, however, he came in in excellent shape!

Second, the story is not a bad story, all told, but the villain by committee is both unsatisfying and uncharacteristic of the series. It’s like watching a baseball game where the manager keeps changing pitchers. I guess the writers sacrificed the prospect of one last great Bond villain in the service of a bunch of other things they wanted to include.

Third, the action is OK. There are a couple of very cool scenes, including the first part of the opening scene (this is a really long movie), but nothing that holds a candle to, say, the opening scenes of The Dark Knight Rises or Tenet.

I bring up those latter two because it is difficult to discern whether the many, many, many similarities and parallels to action films generally (including The Dark Knight Rises (!)), or Bond films specifically, are hat tips or homages or just mere coincidences. That said, many things happen in this movie that are new to the Bond series, the types of things you can probably read about in reviews that have ample spoiler alerts.

In my estimation, there are a handful of Bond films that are good, stand alone movies. Then, depending on the day, there are five-to-ten in the series that are durable as fun action movies, but aren’t terribly good stories and you wouldn’t consider watching them if it didn’t have the Bond pedigree. No Time to Die is probably in the former category for now. The novelties herein will probably have people revisiting this one more than they might have otherwise.

Reminiscence + The Protégé

These films both held a lot of promise but ultimately illustrate the idea that sometimes the sum of a film is not greater than its parts. If you had a recipe like: one part Hugh Jackman, one part Steampunk art direction, one part underwater fight scene — instant hit, that’s what you’d get. It’s not lost on me that a film called reminiscence, which includes all these ingredients, will soon be forgotten. 

Reminiscence, which features spectacular special effects of a not-too-distant future where cities are half-submerged in water, lags due to the self-indulgent and confused tone of the story. It’s a dystopian action/comedy/romance/thriller/sci-fi — and none of these. It also needed to be at least 30 minutes shorter. I held in check the urge to walk out. And I’m the type of person who would enjoy watching a film where grass grows. It pushed my patience as the director followed up every loose strand and tacked on egregious monologues regarding Greek mythology. Not necessary. As was the constant voice over narration by Jackman. It became an almost instant parody unfolding in real time before me. A disappointing experience. 

The Protégé at least had some interesting fun and games involving the incomparable Michael Keaton and the talented Maggie Q.  Though at some point in this film it becomes apparent that the story hinges on an absurd fantasy that Maggie Q’s character, the take-no-prisoners fighter and intellectual Anna, would be interested in Keaton’s Rembrandt, who seems to be wearing an ascot. That’s when you realize it’s a story tailored for old guys though ostensibly featuring a strong female lead. The fight scenes with Keaton and whoever his stunt double is were ridiculous. On the other hand, the Maggie Q action sequences where on par with Die Hard and fun to watch. The film goes off the rails with a shark jump to rival the original shark jump of Arthur Herbert Fonzarelli’s. And Act III becomes predictable, preachy, involves gratuitous violence and is irrelevant. The filmmakers let this one slip through their hands and there was nothing that the great acting of Samuel L. Jackson could do to save it. Another bummer. 

In this latest batch of releases I would recommend Free Guy for a fun action film. For a strong drama, look to Stillwater, where I think Matt Damon deserves to be nominated for an Academy Award.

Free Guy

I just played a game of online Asteroids to warm up for this review. It was on the Atari site and sponsored by AARP. Free Guy is a film that will either appeal to the 14 year old in you or your actual 14 year old. It’s a cross between Her, War Games and It’s a Wonderful Life. The film is loud and brash and original if not in plot, then at least in the graphics department (excluding the direct but well-timed references to Star Wars and Marvel) since it is not based on an existing game —or even amusement park ride!

The film doesn’t really poke fun at itself in the sense of breaking the fourth wall. However, it does have a point to make about breaking out of how you think your life is supposed to be. This theme will be obvious to those of us who know what AARP stands for but I think it’s a good message for people of any age.

Speaking of graphics, the special effects were flawless and fun.  If you are the type of person who finds yourself playing a video game and trying to say, land a fighter plane on the Golden Gate Bridge…or figure out where the edge of the simulated environment is…and try to hack it, you will probably enjoy this film too.

The other interesting aspect for those who get into metaphysics and ontology…when is something real? If an AI character is evolving on its own and believes it is feeling, is it feeling? This question motivates Act III and is covered specifically by the NPCs (non-player characters) themselves in a strong scene between Reynolds’ Blue Shirt Guy and Lil Rel Howery’s Buddy the security guard.

This isn’t a totally dude-centric film either (though there is a very big dude in it). There is a strong female character, Molotov Girl, played convincingly by Jodie Comer. Finally, Ryan Reynolds, this time as producer and star, is able to unleash every facial expression imaginable. Overall, this film certainly had its moments and I enjoyed it.

The Green Knight

What follows is a guest post from the Good Doctor himself. For a Stoopid American, he sure knows a lot about English literature!

Dark: And so Sir Gawain sets off, traversing forests and mountains to find The Green Knight, where he meets a talking fox who warns him: 'You will find no mercy, no happy end'

The Gawain doctor is in—and like most doctors, he’s running a little behind.

I should probably start with the patient’s question, which was about how faithful Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is to the 14th-Century poem of the same name. It’s not particularly faithful, but since we’re not 14th-Century readers, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It is deeply engaged with the original poem in ways that are probably more interesting than would be the case in a more direct adaptation. Knowing the poem will give you a framework and additional material to think about, but it won’t “explain” the film or leave you with nothing to do but listen to some English professor carping about what the director misunderstood or didn’t get right.

The original poem explores the themes of courtesy and mirth, reflecting on how a society genuinely inspired by the medieval Christian understanding of those virtues might operate (and on how the actual medieval world falls short). David Lowery’s movie has almost no mirth, and courtesy always turns out to be a deceptive mask (as it sometimes is in the original as well). It feels more like the world of Beowulf or Game of Thrones than the refined and civilized world of the movie’s source material.

Fittingly, Lowery’s Sir Gawain is a flawed everyman rather than an innocent embodiment of courtesy. He has a hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold girlfriend, and his drunken excess is always set in a brothel or a tavern to distinguish it from the equally-inebriated, Christian-sanctioned mirth of the original poem. I think this revision is probably designed to make Gawain a relatable character, allowing modern film-goers to identify with his trials and tribulations over the course of the film, in much the way that medieval readers were invited to identify with the courteous but inexperienced Gawain of the poem.

At the same time, Lowery nicely captures the sense in the original poem that things are rarely as simple as they seem, and that forces at the edge of our understanding—if not entirely beyond it—are at work shaping the course of events and giving them meaning. His approach is more in the form of a fever dream than the subtle and teasing allegorical undertone of the original poem, but it feels properly medieval in its rejection of naturalist or realistic plot in favor of symbolic or allegorical meaning.

There are definitely easter eggs for readers of the original poem. There is a brief mention of the five virtues, an important set piece from the original poem in which Sir Gawain’s shield is allegorized for its “endless knot” pentangle front and painting of Mary inside. When that shield is cracked and destroyed in the opening episode of his journey, it confirms what you had probably already guessed about how far those medieval virtues would get you in the movie’s world.

The film also follows the basic structure of the original poem: the Green Knight’s visit to Arthur’s court, fast-forwarding to Gawain’s departure a year later, a Christmas over-nighter at a mysterious castle, and a final conclusion of Sir Gawain’s “game” with the Green Knight. Readers familiar with the poem will find significant resonances with the critically important castle episode immediately prior to that final encounter, and may be particularly interested in the decision to cast the same actress as the hooker-with-the-heart-of-gold and the lady of the house.

The final confrontation with the Green Knight is as confusing and counter-intuitive as in the original, but works to a different end. My own reading is that, where the original invites the recognition of our fallen nature in even the most virtuous of Christian heroes, Lowery is more interested in revealing the systemic injustice of patriarchy. Ironically, Lowery’s Gawain must pass his test if he is to succeed, whereas the 14th-Century Gawain can become a hero despite his all-too-human failings. But there is plenty of material (friendly robbers, lady ghosts, talking foxes, earth giants) to fuel other interpretations, which is one of the things that makes this movie so rewarding.

If you can figure out what those creepy giants are up to, you’re a smarter reader than I am. Len tells me that they’re Czechoslovakian anime, and who am I to disagree?

The Green Knight

We rallied the troops and hit The Green Knight on opening night, the new cinematic adaptation of the classic 14th-century poem, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” So the big question you are asking, I’m certain, is whether the film is faithful to the poem?

And my answer, of course, is that you are asking the wrong guy.

There is so much about this movie that I don’t have answers to, starting with who is this Green Knight? Is it the rocky, green-tinged shrub guy, or is it the inexperienced Gawain himself? Does his mother actually like him? Is she a lady or is she a tramp? What do you think happened to that little guy? And shouldn’t King Arthur be perhaps just a little more buff?

So L&D called a doctor for this emergency. Not an M.D., of course, but the type of doctor with command of lyric poetry and pop culture (!). So keep an eye on this space.

Meanwhile, a few of my unvarnished observations: Firstly, this is really great entertainment. Great story, great acting, great intrigue, great fun. It is not Hollywood fare in that you can’t really see where this one is going. And it is not Hollywood fare in that once you get where this one is going, it is unlikely you will be able to sort it out neatly. Yes, there is magic and there are spirits and there are even a handful of mushrooms for you and your handsome friend, so that doesn’t add to the clarity. But my advice to anyone overwhelmed by mushrooms, as always, is to stay put and see what happens.

Secondly, you should see this before it gets displaced by all of the (would-be) August blockbusters. Ugh. If it sticks around, I will see it again. Grab a friend and go.

And, finally, as we were watching, we started a running list of films that this one draws upon, including (but not limited to), Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Fantastic Planet, Midsommar, The Last Temptation of Christ, Phantom Thread, Cruella, Guardians of the Galaxy (I or II), and I’m sure this list will continue to grow.

Big ups from the entire crowd. It’s highly likely you will find this on the year-end list…

One Year Hence.

Old

Approximate Taco Bell Drive-Thru Line, 9:58 p.m., July 22, 2021

If you’ve seen the previews to the new M. Night Shyamalan feature, Old, then you pretty much know how the movie is going to unfold. There are some metaphors about the existential dread of aging, not particularly good ones, and some not terribly well fleshed-out antagonists. The beach is lovely, though. And although you know how it unfolds, what actually happens will perhaps surprise you.

The ending wraps things up in a jiff!

This is not must see material, but if you must see a movie, you might consider this one. The summer release schedule has seemingly hit the point of tedious high-budget action films, and spooky would-be horror films. That would perhaps explain a rather full theater on opening night, but my guess is that the legs of this release are not long.

Heading over in the pre-10 p.m. hour, I did note that the Taco Bell sign was not illuminated. Yet, cars at the drive thru snaked well out of the parking lot and into the street. The tension between ridiculously low-priced fast food and the capacity to staff a restaurant that offers ridiculously low-priced fast food remains strong in the Fox Valley.

An Origin Ride

Black Widow is fun ride. Maybe like the new riverboat movie, Jungle Cruise, it will become an actual ride at Disneyland. But unlike that ride, I mean movie, it wasn’t a ride first. In any case, Black Widow boasts strong leading performances by Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, Rachel Weisz and David Harbour (of Stranger Things fame) and excellent action. The story includes women who kick ass all over the place and the highest caliber production value — except for the scene with the jail and even the avalanche stolen from War for the Planet of the Apes. They could have tried harder there. 

But it’s one of those kick up your feet, eat your popcorn, turn off your brain blockbuster summer movies. Another 200 million plus budget movie that will return over 500 million most likely. And it needs to. There were more plasterers listed in the credits than…than…you get it, they hired plasterers. 

This film did have a heart, did deal with family dynamics, with ethics and loyalty, with friendship. And had a sense of humor. All those good things. So it delivered on what you would expect, massive explosions for example and then some. Also, it’s simultaneously streaming on Disney+ but it’s a big movie that deserves a big screen.  

Cruella

Did you hear L&D are back?!?

Well, you might be the first to hear, because the Marcus Theater employees didn’t recognize us, and they didn’t hold the movie for us, either. Our preferred theater generally runs 20 minutes worth of preliminaries, so the movie starts roughly 21 minutes after the posted time as L&D are settling in; but in this post-Covid world, evidently, they sometimes cut the trailers short for the late movies so the staff can get out a few minutes early. So we missed the previews and whatever would-be hilarity Greg Marcus is bringing these days, and also missed the opening opening of the movie.

That said, we probably missed a lot of other stuff, too. This movie is sensory overload, for sure, in a good way. Early in the movie they were doing this blur tactic on moving camera shots that I couldn’t quite get accustomed to. By mid-movie I was thinking we were sitting too close to the screen because it was hard to keep track of everything going on. There was explosive color, lots of colors, lots of colors moving across the screen in every direction, more pixels than your brain could ever hope to handle.

And a lot of black and white, too, of course. The most colorful black and white you are ever likely to see.

Although it’s a lot of work watching this, the audio helps a lot. The selections set or match the mood of the scenes pretty well, and when old vinyl doesn’t suffice, it does a nice job of making its own. My conjecture is that the music complements the visuals, allowing your brain to make sense of all that’s up on screen. I did turn on the soundtrack afterwards, as L told you I would, but I think that unlike Rushmore or Pulp Fiction or Baby Driver, this one doesn’t seem to keep my interest without the film rolling. Possibly because unlike those other movies, this is more of a (really) fun-to-watch-at-the-theater movie for me, and not a serious candidate for my attention going forward. Who knows?

Certainly I didn’t know much about this moving going in,* just that it’s Disney and it’s the backstory for Cruella, sure. Even so, it is clear that the primary challenge for the writers is that Emma Stone is so awesome that you just have to love her, and she’s sure easy to love as Estella, but they can’t quite figure out how to turn her into pure evil. Or, more likely, they just can’t bring themselves to do it. I don’t know the actual 101 Dalmatians story, but I am guessing the original Cruella isn’t a sympathetic, misunderstood genius; in this origin story, Cruella is the heroine, that much is for sure.

At any rate, Disney movies don’t get too much better than this. The soundtrack keeps things moving along. The set pieces are generally fun, sort of like if Wes Andersen had a $100 zillion dollar budget and ordered up costumes and materials for three or four movies, and then Disney kicked him out and put in its own people. That’s not quite accurate, but certainly a starting point for discussion. The supporting actors were very good, dogs watching footy made me lol, the heist scenes were generally solid (if a bit overdone), the plot was mostly non-obvious, good fun all around. And after 60 hours of productions featuring lions mauling and being mauled, superheroes killing and being killed, Jedis behaving badly, and full-scale intergalactic warfare, Disney finally got around to showing blood in one of its films.

And what a great punchline that was!

So, see Cruella, you will like it. And, if not, at least you will like the soundtrack.

Also, watch this space for potential curling and National Rugby League updates. L&D is back in business.

_____

*Taco Bell appeared to be closed on the way by, so the usually reliable TBI was not available. On the way back it still appeared to be closed, though there was a pretty good queue at the drive thru window. It’s a great big world.

Cruella Duella

As the Assistant Directors like to say after lunch on set: “We’re Baaaack!, We’re Baaaack!, We’re Baaaack!” 

But hopefully you’re happier to hear that than the crew. …We are. 

Cruella stars Emma Stone who we’ve seen convincingly blast zombies, work her way up the royal hierarchy and dance on LA freeways. In this role she kicks ass and takes no prisoners (sans three Dalmatians). One of the best things I can say about this movie is that it almost —almost!— doesn’t feel like a an overproduced Disney picture. To give you an idea, the budget on this production is larger than the GDP of several nations. Yes, they are all small Pacific island nations but nations with a seat at the UN nevertheless. At one point, a great daybreak shot with Cruella jetting on a scooter she just jacked, the film almost takes on the flavor of the DC Comics universe (which is owned by Time-Warner who is owned by AT&T, not Disney). And Emma Stone is so good (I refuse to gush about her like I always do). She simply elevates any film she is in. She brings it. I truly wonder what role she would love to play if given the opportunity. Maybe it will be the next movie she produces.  

So it feels like a pretty grown-up film, for a kids film. The production value is absolutely off the charts. And an army of people did amazing work on this technically flawless show. 

There are a few cool story twists. One in particular that I won’t name involves things that fly. And there is also a great supporting acting. In particular the performance of Paul Walter Hauser who also shined in Clint Eastwood’s “Richard Jewell”. Emma Thompson held her own as Cruella’s foil. The casting and performances were top-notch across-the-board.

The soundtrack was amazing. I think it may be the best soundtrack I’ve ever heard in a movie, with plenty of deep tracks from the likes of Queen, Nina Simone and Tina Turner. At least the best since Baby Driver or Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2.  D turned to me and said he would be playing the soundtrack at work tomorrow.

Ultimately this film is all about style, StYlE. STYLE!!! —And it does that well. The plot is absurd and predictable but there are also enough cool twists to keep you interested. Overall, Cruella was an entertaining, check your brain at the door movie and a lot of fun. 

Uncut Gems

uncutgems.jpg

I wish they would have cut it.

It felt twice as long as Gone with the Wind with a tenth of the integrity and interest. I feel somehow personally disappointed by Adam Sandler, not like I know him, but I did have a late night dinner at the Denny’s on Sunset Blvd and he was sitting next to me. He seemed like a great guy. Now this. Who green lights these things for their clients? I just can’t believe Sandler thought this was a good idea.

And Judd Hirsch. Why? If you are interested in climbing a mountain of stereotypes then this film is a great first step in your journey.

Not to mention the fact that there is not so much as even an anti-hero. There is a no hero here. And there is a simple thematic note that is delivered for hours and hours. The film is essentially a cheap card trick, similar to Joker and Midsommar.  Look, says the director, “I can make you feel uncomfortable, on edge and ill for a very long time. Isn’t this a cool trick.?”

No. No it’s not.

In general, the film is uneven. There are scenes with characters that go nowhere, serve no purpose. Simple dead ends. And whichever reviewer said that this was Adam Sandler’s greatest role never saw Punch-Drunk Love plus whatever other character or role he has ever played. And finally, what the hell executive producer Martin Scorsese, I’m still not sure why you stood up for that rat fink Kazan at the Oscars but producing this really isn’t forgivable. Marty, stick to preserving movies from Africa, that’s something you can actually be proud of. This film should be forgotten as soon as possible. —If only I could erase it from my brain.