There’s a moment early in Tom Cruise’s first film in four years where his character must lay everything on the line and push himself beyond all the limits to save his team.
It’s a constant theme in the nearly 60-year-old actor’s latter career as Cruise constantly strives to top himself for the sake of blockbuster cinema, attempting to save theatrical releases by dangling from tall buildings, freefalling from highest unfathomable by anyone who isn’t a stuntman and literally flying fighter jets to show his face in the cockpit at Mach speeds.
Cruise’s endless bravado – a seemingly equal balance of boyish charisma and belief in his own invincibility – propels every choice he has made as an actor the past decade and a half, culminating in a death-defying Mission: Impossible franchise and now the resurgence of his 1980s classic Top Gun.
Director Joseph Kosinski reteams with Cruise for the first time since 2013’s “Oblivion” to modernize the aerial combat action drama, taking full advantage of cinematography advancements and Cruise’s obsession with creating unbelievable movie moments. Top Gun: Maverick puts Cruise back in the cockpit as Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, a former ace pilot called back into active duty to train the next generation of combat aces for a practically incompletable mission.
As with every film he attaches himself to these days, Cruise carries the weight of the entire project on his back from start to finish as audiences play co-pilot to Maverick’s rebellious nature that makes him the world’s premier dogfighter and rubs most of those around him the wrong way.
It’s a role Cruise has played many variations on over the years, but this return to the character is more self-reflective and emotional than one might expect as viewers can feel the weight of unrealistic expectations Maverick places on himself in Cruise’s face. Although there isn’t as much character work done on the post-traumatic stress that Maverick clearly hasn’t totally worked through, it’s easily overlooked thanks to Cruise’s relentless energy and charisma.
The film’s ensemble cast does well to work around the gravitational pull that the last true movie star brings to Top Gun: Maverick and the next generation of pilots led by a very nuanced turn from Miles Teller as a pilot with ties to Maverick and Glen Powell as his cocky rival help draw viewers into the larger story.
Val Kilmer’s return to Top Gun provides the most emotional impact in the film and his performance is incredibly bittersweet and poignant despite the lack of heavy drama surrounding Maverick’s PTSD amid the burdens he carries.
Fervent fans of the original film will find a lot of similarities in this legacy sequel, from near identical opening credits and orchestral themes to the flight school rivalries and shirtless sporting events that mirror the 80s classic.
Where the biggest changes are, however, are in the visuals.
The most arresting moments of Top Gun: Maverick come in the lengthy, spectacular aerial combat sequences, filmed practically with several IMAX cameras attached to the cockpit and nose of F-18 fighter jets that capture both the dazzling maneuvers flown by true elite Navy aviators as well as the genuine reactions and performances of the actors who are in the planes themselves and not acting in a green screen environment.
Aerial combat has never felt as real and dynamic on screen as it does here, far surpassing the limitations of technology in the 1980s original film and creating a level of harrowing, yet magnetic cinema that viewers could easily watch several hours of regardless of a storyline.
Hundreds of hours of footage captured by these Navy pilots both with the actors and through external jets following the action are meticulously edited into a crisp, supersonic freight train of exhilaration that will keep audiences on the edge of their seats and vault Top Gun: Maverick into contention for the year’s best film.
Though there will likely only be room for one, perhaps two, early blockbusters come awards season, Top Gun: Maverick has the firepower cinematically to edge out The Batman and Everything Everywhere All At Once as the first half of the year hit to earn a Best Picture nomination and it’s all but certain to receive nods in editing, sound and best original song for Lady Gaga’s “Hold My Hand,” which plays over the end credits.
Top Gun: Maverick has absolutely everything one might expect from a Cruise-led movie: Tom riding a motorcycle, Tom running at full speed, Tom grinning like he just stole something, everyone else around him in awe of Tom being Tom. Cruise’s magnetism and the dynamic thrills of the aerial artistry make this summer hit one of the best blockbuster films of the last 10 years and something cinephiles need to see in the biggest screen possible.
Marvel Studios, the comic book film division of Disney, has pushed audiences for more than a decade that a bigger plan is always in the offing.
It took three phases and over 20 movies for producer Kevin Feige to complete his Infinity Gauntlet saga culminating in Avengers: Endgame and along the way there were times in which things didn’t make a whole lot of sense.
It’s safe to say Marvel has gone back to the beginning in a post-Endgame world, throwing things against the proverbial wall to see what sticks and then piecing it all together down the road.
There isn’t a clear vision in their latest film, Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness, a movie that isn’t entirely about the titular Strange at all. It’s one that requires viewers to watch the Disney+ show WandaVision in order to understand character motivations and blurs exactly what the long term plan is for the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole to the point that it’s unclear if Feige even knows.
The simplest way to describe the plot of Madness is that it follows Strange as he ventures across multiple alternate timelines to protect multiverse jumper America Chavez from an unexpected threat to humanities far and wide along the way.
Director Sam Raimi, working with Marvel again for the first time in 15 years since concluding his own Spider-Man trilogy, has to slog his way through a wildly underwhelming screenplay from Michael Waldron that puts almost no actor in a position to succeed.
Much of the early portion of Madness has the signature Marvel sheen that seems to sugarcoat most of the MCU outside of the final Avengers films and it isn’t until things take a darker, more sinister turn midway through that Raimi’s directorial eye is allowed to shine through.
Madness is also unique in that it’s the first film in the MCU to directly pull from Marvel’s Disney+ limited series in order to fully understand the plot of the movie as Raimi’s movie requires audiences to have familiarity with WandaVision and several episodes of the animated What If… to have context for plot points the screenplay glosses over or assumes viewers understand.
Benedict Cumberbatch does a solid job in his return as Strange, especially with some of the alternative versions of the character audiences meet along the way. But by in large, his character mainly serves as a vehicle to drive the story forward and Strange’s uneasy chemistry with Rachel McAdams’ Christine from the first Doctor Strange film continues to be middling here.
Elizabeth Olsen is able to pull a rabbit out of her hat by crafting some truly inspired work as Wanda Maximoff, a fallen Avenger mourning the loss of her love in a path twisted by the events of Avengers: Infinity War and WandaVision. She provides Raimi’s film with an intensity that is showcased largely through the cinematography and direction that other actors just don’t seem to rise to the level of.
Newcomer Xochiti Gomez is serviceable as Chavez, although Waldron’s script basically reduces her character to a Macguffin that is the excuse to tell the story the film does, while not really saying anything about who Chavez is as a person or hero, a larger flaw of the entire screenplay as a whole.
In a way, the rapid pacing of Madness hinders just how good of a movie it is overall because audiences can’t fully appreciate the nuance of what Raimi achieves cinematically. There’s little time to linger on the wide panoramic shots of the visually stunning worlds Raimi’s production team creates because it has to quickly move on to fan-service cameos or random moments that won’t be fully realized until movies years from now.
The same is true of the terror-inducing moments he turns simple chase sequences into, with a race down an underground tunnel being the most creative and impactful cinematic moment in a Marvel film for several years.
There’s a point in the film where it becomes easy for audiences to tell which parts Raimi had control over the style and direction and which were spoon-fed to him by producers reliant on pre-visualized storyboards made before Raimi was ever brought on board.
Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness isn’t the groundbreaking horror comic spectacle that some audiences might have been hoping for in a Marvel reunion with Raimi, but his directing is the best part of this middling MCU movie and the main reason to see the film in theaters outside not wanting to be spoiled.
The directing duo of Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, collectively known as Daniels, have created a brand of cinema flavored with creative ingenuity blended with the bizarre and outlandish that have seen them mystify viewers with flatulent corpses and dark humor with films like 2016’s Swiss Army Man and 2019’s The Death of Dick Long.
Their third feature together, Everything Everywhere All At Once, takes their obsession with the absurd to new heights cinematically as the pair forge a strange, genre-bending tale that mixes Hong Kong martial arts with sci-fi hijinks, comic book universe hopping with family drama in a compelling, original film unlike anything audiences will see in 2022.
Michelle Yeoh of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Crazy Rich Asians fame stars as Evelyn, a down on her luck Chinese immigrant whose business is on the verge of collapse and her marriage on the brink of divorce. While heading to an IRS audit meeting, Evelyn is confronted by an alternate version of her husband, Waymond, who believes she is the only person capable of stopping the nefarious Jobu Tupaki from collapsing every possible universe.
While the film could probably have been successful simply based on the Daniels’ creativity, Yeoh brings All At Once to the next level with a nuanced performance that is often frantic, sometimes melancholic, and ever transformative. She becomes a terrific stand-in for the audience as the film progresses with Yeoh’s initial confusion to the world Evelyn is forced into mirroring the bewilderment of viewers.
As Evelyn grows in confidence and learns skills from alternate reality versions of herself, Yeoh is able to showcase her martial arts prowess and then immediately fall back into a stupor that is practical and convincing to Evelyn’s increasingly outlandish plight and as Evelyn comes to accept the ridiculousness of her situation, Yeoh makes it easier for audiences to suspend their disbelief as well and enjoy the ride.
Yeoh is aided by a wonderful ensemble cast who must make even wider transformations between their character’s normal selves and bizarre variations.
Ke Huy Quan returns to acting for his first role in two decades and steals nearly every scene he’s in as Evelyn’s sheepish, yet adorable husband Waymond. No matter what version of Waymond is in the moment – and all versions are incredible – Quan gives his whole heart to Waymond in a way that just leaps off the screen.
Newcomer Stephanie Hsu is a revelation as the couple’s daughter Joy, a complicated blend of both her parents that allows Hsu to be more eccentric with her alternate versions and Jamie Lee Curtis is almost unrecognizable in a hilarious supporting turn as the IRS agent assigned to Evelyn’s audit.
All At Once is even more spectacular in terms of its visual effects, which was developed by a team of only five to create over 500 different shots in the film. Daniels use both practical and computer-generated effects to showcase Evelyn’s bridge between the versions of herself, dubbed “verse jumping” in the movie, and the look of Yeoh rapidly falling backwards is a constant blur of motion and imagery that keeps viewers at the edge of their seats.
The film also moves at an intensely rapid pace thanks to distinct and swift editing by Paul Rogers that makes the most of the dynamic action sequences that perfectly blend martial arts with the strange science fiction elements of the plot.
Daniels also create a fully realized, wholly immersive world with some of the best production design and costuming that will probably be featured in all of 2022. The depth to which the filmmakers transform a simple office building into a plethora of avenues for creativity cinematically is astonishing and the costume work, especially on Curtis’s Deirdre and also Jobu Topaki showcase the avantgarde uniqueness and originality unmatched in this era.
Because All At Once is so outside the box – there’s literally worlds with hot dog hands and pinatas – it’s unclear how a film released in the first half of the year will stay in the conversation long enough to earn the awards season acclaim it deserves, but Daniels’ film definitely deserves to stand alongside The Batman as the two features to release before July that need to be remembered by voters months from now.
Though it will be a fun experience at home for audiences who can’t find it close to them, there’s no doubt that the visual thrill ride of Everything Everywhere All At Once deserves a trip to the cinema to see the Daniels’ vision on the biggest screen possible and this strange, yet heartfelt will no doubt be a top film of the year.
What does it truly mean to be a celebrity on a global level? What does that recognizability, especially for those with boisterous personalities, do to an actor’s psyche as the shine starts to fade?
It’s a nuanced examination that comes from the most unlikely of places, a zany surreal action dramedy where former A-list actor Nicolas Cage takes on perhaps his most challenging role: himself.
With The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, Cage showcases every side of his acting persona, cranking up the volume of his “Cage-yness” to 11 in a performance that’s incredibly neurotic, exceptionally thought out and cerebral, yet quintessentially heartfelt and emotional in a way only the Academy Award winner could.
The film from writer/director Tom Gormican and co-writer Kevin Etten is a cinematic love letter to Cage’s illustrious and exotic film career, taking audiences on a journey with Nicolas as he battles his inner demons and quite literally talks to his younger self in a wonderful homage to True Romance, the most Nicolas Cage film he was never cast in.
Talent finds this fictionalized Cage on the brink of retiring from acting following another failed audition when an invitation (and million-dollar incentive) to attend a wealthy businessman’s birthday party in Mallorca, Spain, leads Nick to bond with Javi over vintage German horror films upon his arrival and begin to develop a movie idea together, all while covertly working for the CIA.
The incredulous nature of the story, while often going to the brink of inexplicable, works amazingly well simply because Cage commits so fully to the fantasy world Gormican and Etten have crafted that viewers cannot help but be carried along for the ride of R-rated hijinks, deep philosophical conversations, and increasingly meta diatribes about the art of screenwriting and hooking audiences into watching a movie.
Even though the entire film veers into the surreal, there’s a subtle through-layer of Cage working through his own struggles with his public persona and how “out there” he gets in his films leaking into his private life. In a way, Talent is the perfect opportunity for Cage to fully free himself from the crazed 90s action star persona and continue a career revitalization that began with last year’s Pig.
It’s also so easy to fall in love with this wonderfully strange version of Cage because of how genuine Pedro Pascal’s adoration of Nick pours out in every moment of his performance as Javi.
Cage and Pascal have a vibrant chemistry that makes silly interactions over the common love of a children’s movie, or an LSD trip feel whimsical and lighthearted rather than completely ridiculous. The affection both actors have for each other seeps into every aspect of their performances and from the 30-minute mark onward, the best parts of the film are Cage and Pascal’s random conversations that could have nothing to do with moving the plot forward, but are riotously entertaining nevertheless.
Sharon Horgan and Lily Sheen as Cage’s fictional ex-wife and daughter are solid in smaller supporting roles that help ground his performance as a struggle between career and family, while Tiffany Haddish and Ike Barinholtz as two CIA agents pushing Nick to spy on his new friend have some funny moments but are largely just filler to flesh out the incredulous story.
Gormican doesn’t muddle the frame with big explosions or fancy camera tricks in an homage to Cage’s action roots, but Talent does have a fast pace thanks to exceptionally witty dialogue and the joyride audiences go on is generally smooth despite his relative lack of experience behind the director’s chair.
The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is a phenomenal, quirky love letter to one of Hollywood’s most eccentric fan favorite actors and Cage’s winning performance paired with terrific chemistry opposite Pascal make this unlikely buddy dramedy a major surprise hit in theaters for 2022.
It’s been two decades since teenage wizard Harry Potter and his friends made their cinematic last stand in the eighth film based off the novels by J.K. Rowling.
For a variety of reasons, attempts to keep the magic alive today have lost their spark with the third installment in a prequel franchise based on one of Potter’s school textbooks arriving with a whimper both critically and financially.
Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore follows magical zoologist Newt Scamander as he’s pulled into an escalating war between good wizards led by Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore against Gellert Grindlewald, a former love of Dumbledore seeking to establish wizards’ dominance over non-magical humans.
The biggest problem is that, by and large, this third installment is relatively uneventful and boring, largely circulating around election stealing and magical politics that will put younger audiences to sleep and make adults groan.
What made the original Harry Potter film franchise so successful was the idea that audiences knew in advance where things were going but were excited to see how they would unfold in cinematic fashion. It also helped that viewers could grow up with Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint along the way, but the main issue with the stumbling Fantastic Beasts franchise is that the path is far less certain and much less entertaining along the way.
There’s no consistency in this cobbled together trilogy, which has changed the actor portraying the primary villain, Gellert Grindelwald, in each entry and stumbled through its integration of Harry Potter lore into a prequel where most fan favorite characters haven’t been introduced yet.
In its attempts to become a more serious film, Dumbledore removes much of the wonder and magic from the Fantastic Beasts franchise in order to reorient the franchise around Jude Law’s titular character to bring the films closer to the world of Harry Potter but further from what made the first film entertaining.
The beasts themselves, which were the highlight of each of the first two entries, take a relative backseat for much of the nearly two-and-a-half-hour film with fan favorites like lock picking Bowtruckle named Pickett and the gold obsessed Niffler. The primary new “beast” of note is largely used as a Macguffin to further the plot and kept out of sight for the majority of the film.
In fact, perhaps the best sequence of the entire film involves Newt charming crab like creatures with a fanciful dance.
Director David Yates and screenwriter Rowling also make the baffling decision to largely sideline major characters from the first two films, reducing Ezra Miller’s prominent role as the “obscurial” Creedence to a mere bit part and benching Katherine Waterston’s Tina, a co-lead with Redmayne for the first two films, almost entirely for Victoria Yeates’ turn as Newt’s longtime assistant, a less interesting and largely unmemorable character.
But there are some highlights to Dumbledore.
Law is terrific in the title role and offers some sincere emotional complexity even when it’s not entirely earned. Mads Mikkelsen is somewhat understated taking over the role of Grindelwald and the hints of faded love yet uneasy respect between him and Law are some of the best acting in the entire Fantastic Beasts franchise.
This isn’t to discount the work of Eddie Redmayne as Newt, either. Redmayne’s genuine affability successfully allows audiences to place themselves in the story seeing things through Newt’s eyes and it keeps large segments of the film afloat.
While Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore will need to do big business at the box office to sustain the life of the franchise going forward, the film itself will largely become nothing more than a minor footnote in the larger Wizarding World of Harry Potter and isn’t worth seeking out in theaters.
Making a masterpiece is hard enough.
Following it up with something as good or better feels almost impossible, not just because it’s so hard to recapture the magic that brought the film to life but that there’s so much expectation for what comes next.
Sam Mendes created one of the most iconic entries in the James Bond canon with Skyfall and the weight of the world just comes right squarely onto his and Daniel Craig’s shoulders to create something on par with a film that should have been in the Best Picture conversation at the 2013 Academy Awards.
Ardent Bond fans heaped on even more pressure and expectation with the announcement of the title to the follow-up, Spectre, the alias given to the network of spies and assassins 007 has battled over decades led by Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the final boss so to speak in the entire franchise.
But there’s one major problem.
Spectre is not Skyfall. Not even remotely close.
They’re two very different films trying vastly diverse ideas with only the common threads of having the same characters and Spectre following the events of Skyfall.
While the first Mendes film is introspective and demure in its scope, focusing mostly on Bond’s inner demons and ability to perform his job, Spectre has a more outward gaze with Mendes bringing back more of a classic 007 tone, placing more emphasis on the pursuit of villains and world building those challenging Bond.
Here, Bond is on the hunt, with Craig becoming even more ruthless in his pursuit of everyone responsible for the death of M. It’s a colder performance than usual for the steely-eyed Craig, who is exacting with his actions and forces Bond’s emotional walls all the way back up.
While this creates a relentless, vicious Bond, leaning too hard into the colder parts of the character make it difficult for Craig to have good chemistry with most of the supporting cast and many exchanges feel transactional.
In perhaps one of the most scrutinized roles in recent Bond entries, Oscar winner Christoph Waltz does a terrific job of keeping the spirit of Blofeld’s film history alive while making the character his own, leaning into a more developed backstory to base his performance on. Again, it’s difficult to view Waltz’ Blofeld in a bubble without comparison to the perfection of Javier Bardem’s villainous work in Skyfall, but Waltz revels in the mystery of the character’s slow-burn introduction and handles the immense challenge well.
For as important of a character as Madeleine Swann becomes, there’s very little substance given to Léa Seydoux to work with beyond being an object of Bond’s desire and one of great mystery. Most of her performance is shrouded behind endless whispers in service of intrigue and her chemistry with Craig is skittish and standoffish at best, which makes their romance all the more out of left field and unlikely.
But Seydoux takes the role of Bond girl on with vigor and it doesn’t completely stop the tracks of the film, especially when taken into consideration with what’s to come for Swann in the future.
The supporting cast all do solid, yeoman’s work with Dave Bautista an especially terrific standout as a near silent hitman in the Spectre organization who relies on an imposing physical presence and brutality to strike fear into the hearts of viewers in a role that becomes a mix of classic Bond henchman Jaws and Oddjob.
This especially bares out to be true in one of the film’s most nostalgic moments, a fight scene between Bautista’s Mr. Jinx and Bond through a series of train cars that evokes the pivotal brutality of the final fight between 007 and Kronsteen in From Russia With Love.
Other action sequences in Spectre are a mixed bag with the opening sequence in Mexico City being a highlight of the entire film while the final 20 minutes of the film bounce back and forth between Bond’s pursuit of Blofeld and M’s confrontation with C, resulting in a sequence where neither plotline gains much momentum or traction with audiences and feels somewhat anticlimactic.
Mendes does a solid job navigating the world of Bond on a much larger scale, although his second foray into the Bond franchise feels far less personal given the increased stakes and doesn’t quite have the same gravitas that Skyfall did. As a pure action adventure film, however, Spectre benefits greatly from having Mendes at the helm to navigate the tonal shifts between action and exposition.
One of the film’s biggest strengths is the rich visuals captured by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, who returns to shooting on film after Roger Deakins used digital cameras for Skyfall. The result is a textured, yet sharply framed picture that elevates the robust, unique settings for Spectre as Bond jet-sets across the globe in pursuit of Spectre.
Hoytema does an exceptional job of evoking a feeling of intense heat during sequences in Mexico City and Tangier, while thrusting viewers into the brisk cold of an Austrian lake as Bond goes to confront the Pale King.
Sam Smith’s powerful ballad “Writing’s On The Wall” strives for the level of Adele’s title theme from Skyfall, even winning the same Academy Award for Best Original Song. But the whiny, nasally vibrato doesn’t really fit the overall vibe of the story, especially not in keeping with the rhythmic drum tones prevalent in the opening action sequence during Día de los Muertos in Mexico City nor the return to London that immediately follows the animated credits.
Composer Thomas Newman returns to provide Mendes with another soaring and majestic score with which to set the tone for both intense and intimate moments.
Spectre returns to the traditional action-adventure format that Bond fans were more prevalently used to prior to the Craig era films. Though it rushes through creating the villainous world of 007’s most famous adversaries, it does serve as a solid bridge between Skyfall and No Time To Die, setting the stage for a dramatic and climatic end to a two-decade long buildup.
This is the fourth in a series of retrospective reviews of the James Bond film franchise as made by EON Productions in anticipation of the release of the 25th entry in the series, “No Time To Die,” which arrives in American theaters on October 8th.
There are Bond films and then there is Bond cinema.
Most entries into the canon of 007 are Bond films, the ones that find Roger Moore battling giant men with metal teeth or Pierce Brosnan facing off against an old friend over satellites that can destroy financial markets.
Director Sam Mendes’ debut in the filmography of Ian Fleming’s British spy isn’t just a film. It’s pure Bond cinema magic, with an endless array of breathtaking shots that feel ripped from paintings in an art gallery to a boundlessly engaging score to the most intimate and personal character-based drama the franchise has ever seen.
Skyfall is a two-plus-hour endless love letter to James Bond, secret agent man, in his most baseline, essential form. Mendes directs with an emphasis on substance over style and yet his first foray into the world of 007 is among the most lavish, brooding and breathtaking of the entire franchise.
The film’s plot is built on the back of key relationships, most notably M’s handling of her agents, the current 007, James Bond, and a former agent out for revenge.
After Bond and up-and-coming agent Eve are unable to stop the theft of a list revealing the identities of spies infiltrating terrorist organizations, an attack on MI-6 brings 007 back into the fold on the trail of former agent Raoul Silva, who seeks to discredit and kill M.
Craig gives a career-best performance as a Bond whose age may be getting the better of him, struggling to get back to form both physically and mentally. There’s a small, considered amount of exhaustion to his work that comes across as being worn down to the point where the mind is willing but the body might not be capable.
Over the course of the film, Craig finds Bond’s vigor first in physical, hand-to-hand combat while bathed in neon light in a Shanghai skyscraper and later emotionally as he connects with, and then loses, Séverine as a means to hopefully get over the death of Vesper Lynd. Bond’s dismissiveness of his past, be it a hardened exterior to loss or an unwillingness to discuss his youth, plays out incredibly well in Skyfall because of Craig’s control of inner anguish and concerted efforts to mask out the pain as long as possible, which plays out well especially when he physically breaks down at the end of a training session.
The payoffs of Skyfall also don’t hit as hard if not for Dame Judi Dench, who exudes dignity, confidence and emotional subtlety as M. As the walls come crumbling down around M, Dench portrays every moment as if it could be M’s last, but with a steely resolve that feels quintessentially British and in keeping with the tradition of spies flying into the face of fear without regard for their own safety.
Javier Bardem brings a magnetism to the screen as the film’s antagonist, Raoul Silva, that reflects both the character’s background as a former 00 agent like Bond as well as a sadistic streak that stems from his perceived betrayal by M.
Silva’s entrance into the franchise – a long foreboding walk to camera where he tells Bond an allegorical tale about killing rats – hits the mark better than any introduction of a villain in the 007 filmography outside of the reveal of Blofeld in Connery-era Bond.
The character’s immeasurable power comes from Bardem’s strength not as a physical imposing brute, but in mentally superiority that asserts itself in the most vengeful ways. It’s to Bardem’s credit that Silva leaps off the screen from the jump and relishes in each and every delicious way he can get under the skin of his adversaries. There’s a magnetism to his performance that only matches something like what Anthony Hopkins does with Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, bad guys that audiences want to see fall but can’t help but rally behind all along the way.
Skyfall also boasts a tremendous secondary cast that helps to form the key pieces for the rest of Craig-era Bond films including Ben Whishaw’s wry, almost too smart for his own good Q, Naomie Harris’ brash and combat ready Eve and the incomparable Ralph Fiennes as Mallory, a former special operative with governmental oversight on MI-6 that proves to be a formidable adversary for both M and Bond.
Mendes utilizes his theater directing background to ground Skyfall in character-forward drama. Events in the film don’t happen in order to simply move from set piece to set piece or in spite of massive logic flaws as is the case with many 007 films. There are clear motivations behind each decision that cause events to unfold in a natural way, especially when it comes to Silva’s intentions as a villain hoping to exact psychological torture as much, if not more so, than physical pain.
The film wouldn’t be nearly the masterpiece that it is without Roger Deakins’ striking, transfixing cinematography that encapsulates Bond in a post-modern world with a distinctly retro feel, as if the exceptional storytellers of the 1960s had been transported to 2012 and given the technology to produce content with digital cameras.
There are countless iconic visual moments across Skyfall that will stand the test of time: Bond appearing through the shadows with his Walther PPK as a lone beam of sunlight pulls him into frame; M looking on in somber despair over a series of caskets covered in British flags; a tuxedoed 007 standing tall and intimidating as he floats on a water taxi to a casino in Macao passing through the mouths of dragons; the vivid imagery of the night siege on Bond’s childhood home, especially the underwater battle between Bond and a nameless thug in a frozen pond and M’s escape to the chapel.
Action sequences in Skyfall are grandiose in their impact and flow seamlessly from set piece to set piece within the larger scene as a whole that keeps viewers constantly on the edge of their seats. The opening pre-title pursuit widely varies in tone from slow-burn to shootout to driving to thriller moments on a train without any gaps, thanks in large part to sharp editing and a majestic score by Thomas Newman.
Mendes is able to blend action with high drama in the film’s final action sequence, a lengthy siege of Bond’s childhood home where he, M and the manor’s keeper Kincade are holed up in. Each portion of the sequence has its own unique style, going from an elevated Home Alone style booby trap section to a more demonstrative assault that evokes more high cinema war films and culminating with the most poignant of death scenes in franchise history in the family’s church. It’s a majestic ending to cap off and solidify Skyfall as a top three entry in the filmography and cement Bond’s shattered state of mind with resolve moving forward.
Adele’s rapturous title ballad is the first Bond theme song in franchise history to win an Academy Award and rightfully so. Returning to the big, audacious style of classic Bond themes, her dulcet, yet melancholic tones set a somber, introspective mood for Mendes’ film and are wonderfully encased by an animated title sequence that foreshadows the final showdown in Scotland and the impactful opening moments where Bond seemingly falls to his death after being shot off a train and into the river below.
Skyfall will stand with both Casino Royale as well as classic Sean Connery era films like Goldfinger and From Russia With Love as the standard by which all James Bond movies are judged upon. Skyfall is also unique in that it feels the closest in keeping to the character created in the Ian Fleming novels while not being directly based on one of his books.
One of the most dramatic, intensely thrilling entries in the entire 007 canon, it’s easily arguable that Skyfall is the best film in the decades long series with its unique blend of modern cinema and nostalgic feel for Bond in bygone eras.
This is the third in a series of retrospective reviews of the James Bond film franchise as made by EON Productions in anticipation of the release of the 25th entry in the series, “No Time To Die,” which arrives in American theaters on October 8th.
Following the events of Casino Royale almost immediately, Quantum of Solace takes a strong first step towards being a worthy follow-up film in Daniel Craig’s second outing as the famed British spy James Bond.
But midway through, it feels as if director Marc Forster forgets about the globally intricate network of villains established in the first three hours of Craig’s career as 007 and shoves off on a side quest to thwart an ecologically driven heist in the vast empty wastelands of Bolivia.
Throughout Quantum of Solace, Bond pursues lead after lead on the trail of Mr. White, one of the final contacts Vesper Lynd made before her death and a key player in a shadowy organization that MI-6 and the CIA know almost nothing about. Along the way, 007 links up with a former Bolivian intelligence operative on the trail of a non-profit CEO with a questionable history in South America.
Craig is best when he’s exuding a callousness that some define as coming from a quest of vengeance over the death of his love Vesper at the end of Casino Royale, but that feels just as much coming from a near-robotic dedication to finishing the job at whatever cost, no matter how reckless.
Still coming into his own as the character, it’s as if Craig and Bond are both finding themselves by digging deeper into the work with a relentless brutality and cold, unnerving steel blue eyes. Without question there’s an anger to his performance that constantly bubbles under the surface and it’s to Craig’s great credit that his true motivations are never fully realized.
Olga Kurylenko’s Camille is far from a normal Bond girl as she has little to no interest in sleeping with the spy, uses the men around her in order to get closer to her target and is on a simple quest for revenge.
On the whole, Kurylenko lacks the personality required to make Camille a memorable character, which could also be said of the film’s primary villain, Mathieu Amalric’s Dominic Greene. Aside from the rapist general that Camille wants to kill, Greene is the only other new villain of note in Quantum and for the most part, his character comes across rather intentionally as a smarmy little worm that folds under pressure.
Whether that comes from direction by Forster, the screenplay itself or from Amalric’s performance, having a villain so weak undoes a lot of the great work Casino Royale does in establishing Bond’s bonafides as a hero. Because Greene feels like a minor speedbump in Bond’s way to something bigger, so too goes the film as a whole.
Quantum of Solace ramps up the dynamic between Bond and his handler, M, putting long-time series veteran Judi Dench in a well-deserved, more prominent role. It’s clear in Dench’s performance that M has a unique soft spot for Bond, serving as his protector while giving Craig the business verbally with disappointment that jut borders the line of derision. It’s clear in the few moments on screen together that there’s a great affection between the actors as well as the characters, which helped to create the atmosphere that will come to fruition in Skyfall.
The direction has its moments, especially early, but Forster can’t stick the landing.
He opens with traditional Bond: a car chase through a hilly Italian countryside, quick cross-cutting to ramp up the intensity as 007 pursues a double-agent through the street of Siena, luxurious espionage at an Austrian opera house.
Forster’s truly going for it in the latter scene, muting the volume at one point to let the sullen score from the opera Tosca provide the anthem for a chaotic chase sequence that marks the end of high-octane Bond cinema.
But the final hour pushes Bond to the outer edges of society, a vast barren wasteland that often renders a largely grandiose franchise muted and neuters the film overall, especially deflating audiences’ expectations that had been built up to that point.
Early action scenes have a lot of pizzazz with the high-stakes car chase through narrow tunnels and across a gravel yard maintaining the same dynamic energy Martin Campbell did with Casino Royale. There’s also a heightened sense of brutality in fight sequences where audiences can literally feel Bond going for the jugular at every turn, not caring about the body count that he racks up.
As the film progresses, however, the quality of the action dilutes quite considerably and by the time of the final showdown in the desert, a brief five minute sequence that doesn’t stay with Bond the whole way and is largely hidden by fire feels more rushed than it should.
Jack White and Alicia Keys’ theme song “Another Way To Die” pushes the film’s secondary narrative that for a spy, there’s no one you can really ever trust but it doesn’t really match what Forster is doing on screen. The title credit sequence foreshadows Bond’s journey to the sandy dunes of Bolivia and the culmination of Quantum’s ecological/economic warfare and yet the stilted way in which Forster transitions into animated title cards and then plunges audiences back into a world of relative opulence feels disjointed.
Quantum of Solace will ultimately be regarded as a lesser Bond film for its lackluster back half and how boring the villain and his ecologically driven scheme are in the grand scale. It does feature another strong, committed turn from Craig as 007 and one that helps make the films around it (Casino Royale before and Skyfall after) seem even better by comparison.
This is the second in a series of retrospective reviews of the James Bond film franchise as made by EON Productions in anticipation of the release of the 25th entry in the series, “No Time To Die,” which arrives in American theaters on October 8th.
James Bond has been revived several times over the past six-plus decades, but never has a debut film felt as electric as when Daniel Craig achieved his double-0 status with a brutal bathroom assault and classic espionage hit shrouded in black and white.
Director Martin Campbell’s 2006 film “Casino Royale,” a vivid modern reimagining of Ian Fleming’s first novel, completely resets the debonair British secret agent languishing after the laughable “Die Another Day” and shows him as a raw, vulnerable man relying on talent and training to overcome the odds.
To many, the film was a true introduction to the character as Craig became the Bond for the 21st century in much the same way that Sean Connery was the character for Generation X or Pierce Brosnan the 007 of millennials.
“Casino Royale” marks Bond’s first mission after having earned his license to kill and set out on the trail of the world’s premier financier to terrorists, Le Chiffre, which sets him on a jet-setting adventure across the planet and into a high-stakes poker game.
From the opening moments, it’s clear that Craig will be a different sort of spy than audiences are used to as James Bond. His performance is ruthless and methodical, with a callousness that evokes both a blind service to king and country as well as a hardened exterior that masks years of deep internal pain.
Much of the film is centered around Bond’s judgement and reading of people, something that plays out well in the poker hands he squares off in against terrorists and in his assessment of friend versus foe. There’s a cerebral quality to Craig’s line delivery in almost every situation that borders upon being a suave robotic monotone and it colors nearly every relationship his Bond forms in the film with one major exception.
It’s rare to see a Bond girl truly challenge James both in written dialogue and in magnetic performance quite like what Eva Green brings to the role of Vesper Lynd.
While it’s clear that she’s the ultimate sexual conquest and will eventually subdue herself to Bond’s charms, the cat-and-mouse game Green and Craig play with witty verbal repartee that begins with genuine loathing, molds into mutual respect and then a searing love built from the flames of near-death experiences is palpable and exhilarating to watch unfold.
It’s clear that what Bond achieves with his hands and a gun, Lynd is capable of with her words and a pen and it is incumbent on Green to maintain unwavering confidence that matches Craig beat for beat until the pair bring down each other’s walls towards the film’s climatic ending.
Mads Mikkelsen is among the best, most cunning villains in the history of the franchise as Le Chiffre with a stoic and chilling stare that accentuates the character’s trademark eye scare and weeping blood. It’s as calculating and exact a performance as Craig, almost as if Le Chiffre was an evil mirror of this new Bond and one that helps to put Craig over as a super spy by showcasing just how strong of a villain 007 overcomes.
One of the hallmarks of “Casino Royale” that sets the tone for the entire vision of Craig’s five-film tenure as James Bond is how the franchise goes back to its more subdued, natural roots. Mostly excised are the outlandish and implausible plans for world domination and this Bond becomes driven like a bullet relentlessly moving forward at a cold, steady pace towards his target, whatever that may be.
This is especially true of the film’s many action sequences, which have a dynamic and kinetic energy firmly rooted in reality. Bond chasing a bombmaker through a construction site and into an embassy in Madagascar leaps off the screen with a frantic pace, jaw-dropping parkour artistry and highlights the contrasts in style between the 007s of old and this youthful agent freshly minted with a license to kill.
Craig is the most physical of the Bonds, participating in the most stunt work and ramping up the aggression as this James would rather run straight through an obstacle than stealthily find a way around it.
Chris Cornell’s blasting rock anthem “You Know My Name” helps set the aggressive tone for a new era of James Bond, while the film’s wonderful score by composer David Arnold melds older melodies from 007 days gone by with the cadences and rhythms of the Cornell song to help accentuate scenes.
Campbell is sometimes too on the nose with his directorial style and editing, being excessively forward with where things are headed within scenes like hard cutting to a security camera to overemphasize Bond being recorded in action or making product placement for Sony brands comically noticeable.
But when he’s on his game, Campbell and cinematographer Phil Meheux do a terrific job of paying homage to the origins of both the character and the film franchise, visually linking Craig with Connery in a way that leaves the distinct impression that both men could have been doing the same job in different eras under the same code name.
Gender-bending the iconic shot of Ursula Andress emerging from the water onto a sandy beach in “Dr. No” with Craig doing the same on the shores of the Bahamas is an exceptionally inspired choice that canonizes the new Bond with links to the past.
The debut film for any actor taking on the mantle of James Bond is critical to his success in future films and “Casino Royale” is on par with “Dr. No” in terms of best establishing its lead as THE James Bond rather than just A James Bond.
Cold, menacing and yet one of the most dramatic entries in the entire canon, “Casino Royale” is a top tier 007 film that cements Daniel Craig as a generational action star and rebuilds an iconic character from the ground up for years to come.
This is the first in a series of retrospective reviews of the James Bond film franchise as made by EON Productions in anticipation of the release of the 25th entry in the series, “No Time To Die,” which arrives in American theaters on October 8th.
When viewers are first introduced to Tammy Faye Bakker, it’s 1994.
She’s caked in layers of makeup, some of which are permanently tattooed onto her face. Her cheeks are bloated as she sucks down a can of Diet Coke and her nasally, Betty Boop-esque voice pierces through like nails on a chalkboard.
If this is a sign of things to come, things aren’t looking good for The Eyes of Tammy Faye, director Michael Showalter’s latest film and a biopic drama about the infamous 80s televangelist and her husband Jim’s rise to prominence and fall from grace.
But the film succeeds wholly on the back of Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain, who takes Tammy Faye as an innocent, precocious ingenue and carries her through decades of blind faith, tribulations and an unrelenting warmth with open arms and an open heart.
In traditional biopic fashion, The Eyes of Tammy Faye reverts back to her youth as a child of divorce in a church system that viewed her as both a memory of her mother’s shame and as a prodigy of evangelism. As she meets Jim Bakker in college and swiftly marries him to start a career as traveling preachers together, Showalter and Chastain slowly build up Tammy Faye beyond the possibility of caricature while simultaneously adding layers of makeup to mask the pain she hides from everyone around her.
Her performance is electric and always on the forefront, elevating Tammy Faye’s larger than life personality with a midwestern charm and an endless devotion to people that would come off as fake or put on in the hands of an actress not engulfed by Tammy Faye’s spirit the way Chastain is here. There’s an enthusiasm to every element from the singing Chastain records herself to the countless small interactions Tammy Faye has with minor characters that make things feel authentically as if the present moment is the most important thing in Tammy Faye’s life.
Andrew Garfield is an interesting, yet solid choice to play Jim Bakker as the chemistry he has on screen with Chastain doesn’t quite feel right most of the time but that also feels accurate to Jim and Tammy Faye’s relationship in general. Garfield sees considerably less screen time and isn’t given much opportunity to develop Jim as a character, but what comes across very strongly across his performance is a quirky charm that draws Tammy Faye in and slowly twists into something much more deceptive.
There’s a constant feeling that Jim is hiding something from Tammy Faye, whether that be financial troubles or his wavering sexuality, and this could easily be overplayed. Garfield deliberately makes choices that push Jim to the edge of something but never falls over. It’s a terrific balance he finds in showing cracks in Jim’s persona while leaving everyone in the dark about his true motivations.
Cherry Jones does a solid job as Tammy Faye’s religious, moderately disapproving mother, though the secondary scene stealer is unquestionably Vincent D’Onofrio’s turn as Rev. Jerry Falwell, who he imbues with a presence that can be felt well before Falwell walks into a room and long after he leaves.
His Falwell is like a mob boss for the Christian conservative movement of the 1980s, menacing not in his actions but in his softly spoken, sharply chosen words that allow D’Onofrio plenty of room to chew the scenery in the best possible way.
A different film might have more closely examined how Tammy Faye’s increasing celebrity status molded the bright, always-on persona she portrayed on screen into something so ingrained in her that she could never turn it off to grief or feel hurt.
But The Eyes of Tammy Faye attempts to convince its viewers of her relative naivety to Jim’s illegal activities and her disinterest in confronting accusations that he may have had affairs with men. Jim’s one-time dalliance and payoff to secretary Jessica Hahn is only briefly mentioned, almost as an aside to help explain the Bakker scandal and downfall.
It’s a concerted decision by Showalter and screenwriter Abe Sylvia to keep viewers’ attention so narrowly focused through Tammy Faye’s point of view that significant gaps in the storytelling emerge with everything that Jim is doing just outside the frame. This helps root audiences firmly in Tammy Faye’s corner but leaves a lot to be desired from an overall cinematic perspective.
The film wants to be a lot of different things at one – serious character driven drama, a comprehensive biopic of Tammy Faye’s life, a subtly piercing dark comedy – and Showalter struggles to keep things from swaying back and forth between these elements. Technical aspects of the film are exceptionally well done; the production design firmly plants viewers inside the 1980s better than most films looking back on the era and the makeup/hair design makes tremendous sense when compared to the real subjects.
From an awards perspective, it’s difficult to see the film earning nominations outside of Chastain’s brilliance in the title role and while this performance is significantly better than Renee Zellweger’s Oscar-winning turn as Judy Garland in Judy two years ago, it’s unlikely that Chastain will have anything more than an outsider’s chance to receive a nomination in spite of how much she probably deserves an outright win.
Audiences who remember the Bakker controversies should find themselves transported back to that period while younger viewers will certainly gravitate to Chastain’s singular, masterful performance. The Eyes of Tammy Faye” may not end up on a top 10 list at the end of 2020, but it’s certainly one worth seeking out in theaters.
Clint Eastwood, one of the greatest actor/filmmakers of all time, doesn’t know how to quit.
At 91, the two-time Academy Award winning director makes history by being the oldest person ever to star above the title in a movie with Cry Macho, which arrived in theaters and on HBO Max this past weekend 50 years after the debut of his directorial debut Play Misty for Me in 1971.
Eastwood has become famous as a quick filmmaker, opting to lock in scenes in as few takes as possible. While the degree of difficulty to maintain quality in such a rapid pace is hard enough, it’s even harder when Eastwood is directing himself and isn’t able to watch scenes play out from behind the camera.
This causes some issues in Cry Macho, a wonderfully shot film that places Eastwood in the center of the frame for 100 minutes as a former rodeo star and ranch hand coerced into traveling to Mexico in hopes of reuniting an old friend with his teenage son. As the aging Mike and brash youth Rafo make their way to the border, they both learn about themselves, each other and what it means to be macho.
Eastwood’s age often gets the better of him as Mike, a man whose days of cowboying should have been ten to twenty years in the past rather than thirty or forty. This awkwardness makes it difficult for audiences to not feel Mike too brittle for the journey he partakes, especially as he stumbles around trying to catch a rooster, bend down to check beneath a car or ride a wild stallion.
But because it’s Eastwood and because it’s impossible to separate the man himself from the character he’s portraying, viewers will latch onto Mike relatively quickly and forgive these shortcomings as an eccentricity rather than a fatal flaw.
Eastwood is effortlessly transfixing to watch, balancing a rough exterior with a gentle undertone better than any western actor. It’s as if viewers are seeing Eastwood confront his own filmography covered with bravado and machismo and struggling to figure out what to do when the fire begins to smolder.
Eduardo Minett challenges Eastwood every step of the way as Rafo, the aimless teen fending for himself on the streets of Mexico City. Though the screenplay somewhat neuters Rafo’s unbridled personality by limiting him to simple false bravado, Minett does a solid job of matching Eastwood’s tone.
His performance is not exceptionally showy although Minett is capable of being both a worthy pseudo-antagonist to Mike as well as a misguided soul that audiences can feel a sense of compassion toward.
Cry Macho suffers from a narrative perspective, where audiences are forced to accept wild leaps of unlikely responses to situations that feel logically impossible. It’s hard to imagine the events of the film playing out without Mike being seriously injured or killed within the first act.
This also extends out to the supporting characters themselves who feel like afterthoughts in terms of motivation or purpose outside of being narrative plot points. Mike and Rafo are clearly fleshed out both in the screenplay and in the larger film itself, but many of the smaller parts feel ripped from the pages of an old western: the nosy buffoonish sheriff, the strong-willed yet submissive love interest, the friend willing to send the protagonist out to die in order to make a quick buck.
Cinematographer Ben Davis uses natural lighting to create a number of artistic, visually engaging shots that help profile Eastwood as the sun sets on his career. It’s moments like Mike camping out underneath the stars set to the tunes of composer Mark Mancina’s terrific score or slow dances with Mike and Marta in a dust-filled room that will leave viewers breathless.
If Cry Macho is the final film in Eastwood’s illustrious career, then it serves as a solid coda worthy of his generational talent, especially when paired with his other later years self-reflective melancholic pieces Gran Torino and The Mule. The visuals are worthy of checking out on the big screen, although they don’t lose any luster in an at-home viewing on HBO Max.
One of Hill Country Film Festival’s greatest success stories makes its theatrical debut this weekend.
Last Night in Rozzie, directed by Sean Gannet from a screenplay by Ryan McDonough, won both the Cinema Dulce (Best of Fest) and Best Feature Film award at the 12th annual festival this summer and will open in limited release on the big screen as well as premium video on demand this Friday.
The film originally screened for its world premiere as a short film in 2017 before filmmakers secured the financing to expand their 14-minute piece into a full length feature. Both versions of Rozzie have the same basic outline, although the 80-minute version changes some significant plot choices and recasts the lead actors.
Last Night in Rozzie follows Ronnie, a New York City corporate lawyer pushed back to his roots in the small Boston suburb of Roslindale to reunite his dying friend Joey with his young son and confront the demons 25 years in his past. What complicates things is Joey’s request that Ronnie facilitate the visit without letting his ex-wife – and Ronnie’s childhood crush – Pattie know.
This conceit drives the central narrative and complicates a relatively straightforward story. While it works well to enhance the relationship between Ronnie and Joey, things become a bit wobblier between Ronnie and Pattie as there’s an uncomfortable tension to the core of their interactions placed by the narrative that the film can’t seem to get away from.
Neil Brown Jr. makes the transition from television to movie lead with his first major feature role after several successful seasons on CBS’s Seal Team.
As Ronnie, Brown Jr. is very approachable and engaging to follow for audiences as viewers bounce around Roslindale almost never leaving his side. Often he portrays Ronnie as being wound so tightly that he’s on the verge of breaking, which works in the larger melodrama but also makes Ronnie very inaccessible and distant in relationships.
Without question, the highlight of the entire film is Jeremy Sisto’s magnetic performance as Joey. The energy in scenes doubles any time Sisto is on screen regardless of Joey’s physical state and he constantly draws viewers back into the heart of the film whenever they may begin to disengage from events outside the hospital.
The veteran character actor best known for a four season run on hit NBC crime drama Law and Order commands a range of emotions from humor to anger to deep seeded sadness that moves fluidly throughout. Sisto is brilliant at making the most of a role that keeps him largely confined to a hospital bed and yet it’s as if Sisto’s looming presence dances around scenes he’s not in, elevating occasionally marginal melodrama.
Nicky Whelan is solid in an underdeveloped role as Pattie, a fiercely independent mother who wants nothing more than to shield her son from things of the past. On her own, it’s a strong performance but a constant standoffishness between Ronnie and Pattie makes her work feel relatively disjointed from the rest of the film.
Part of the narrative hook of Rozzie relies on a series of flashbacks to slowly reveal information to the audience about both Ronnie and Joey’s close, yet fractured relationship as well as why Ronnie left town and spirals downward upon his return.
Gannet measures his usage of these scenes, which sharply cut into the flow of the film in order to push the audience emotionally and the effect works moderately well especially at the pivotal moments, though the return to the current timeline can be a bit off-kilter at times.
Visually, Rozzie is exceptionally sharp for an independent film and puts too lush a shine on the more somber story. This decision by Gannet and director of photography Matt Suter doesn’t really make sense until the final moments of the film, where a haze is laid over the screen to bring audiences deeper into Ronnie’s devolving state of mind and helps solidify the film’s ending.
Last Night In Rozzie may not have the star power of large scale adult melodramas, but its independent spirit, universal story and Sisto’s remarkable performance might be the right find for local cinephiles who missed out on its summer screening in Fredericksburg wanting to check it out at home.
Note: Matt Ward is a programmer for the Hill Country Film Festival.