Spectre: Means to an end

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.


Skyfall: You can never go home again

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.


Quantum of Solace: Bond thrown off course

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.


Casino Royale: A new old vintage for James Bond

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.


The Eyes of Tammy Faye: Open arms, open heart

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.


Cry Macho: What it means to be strong

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.


Last Night in Rozzie: Independent hit a solid double

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.


Gunpowder Milkshake: Janey’s got a gun

Gunpowder Milkshake never had a chance at a theatrical run. The film’s biggest star is Karen Gillan, a talented actress with major ensemble roles in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as villainous half-robot Nebula and alongside Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart in the Jumanji reboot films.

A major studio eyeing box office success isn’t going to put their resources into a female-led action ensemble film without a big name draw at the top of the billing and as much as Carla Gugino, Lena Headey, Michelle Yeoh and Angela Bassett bring to Gunpowder Milkshake, it’s not enough to entice someone to finance getting the film onto the big screen in any significant way.

But in many ways, writer/director Navot Papushado’s first major feature is the perfect streamer movie.

Highly influenced by films like John Wick, Atomic Blonde, Kingsman and the complete works of Quentin Tarantino, Gunpowder Milkshake opts for flashy neon colors, brutal violence and simple matter-of-fact dialogue to bulldoze its way through the narrative with as little world building as possible.

The film finds Gillan’s Sam as a hitwoman on the run after betraying the organization that hired her to protect an innocent young girl kidnapped by clumsy, greedy lowlifes. When Sam and her ward, Emily, make it to a safe house, they are greeted by women from Sam’s past that prove to be key allies in a war against all comers.

Gillan is a generally enjoyable lead to follow over the course of two hours as her strong comedic timing really allows for the moments of levity to strike home well in the sparing moments they occur. A large segment of her Sam does feel somewhat lifted from Keanu Reaves’ titular performance in the John Wick series with a stoic, slightly muted monotone delivery for much of the film and a clear decision to internalize all of Sam’s childhood trauma and turn it into cold-blooded violence that anchors the film.

Despite the ridiculous nature of many of the situations the film puts her in, Gillan is able to carry action sequences with the gusto necessary to allow audiences to maintain a suspension of disbelief that makes the scenes implausibly enjoyable rather than short circuiting viewers’ engagement with the movie.

At her side for most of the running time is Chloe Coleman, who’s far more charming here than in last year’s underwhelming family action adventure My Spy. Coleman lays out Emily’s emotions bare and holds her own in scenes opposite Gillan, especially when the pair are trying to escape a slew of armed baddies in a bulletproof red speedster.

There’s a decent blend of homage and originality to the film’s many fight sequences, from a battle in a dimly-lit bowling alley with faded neon lights meant to evoke shades of Kill Bill to a fight in a hospital hallway that provides some of the most inventive choreography in several years in spite of a ridiculous pretext.

Stylistically, the action sequences vary in weapon choice to a much larger degree than the average thriller would and the film’s lone car chase scene has a distinctly original twist that is among the highlights. Cinematographer Michael Seresin does a solid job capturing moments from unique vantage points that emphasize and accentuate the bright visual color palette of Gunpowder Milkshake, but it’s often undercut by uneven editing.

It’s a significantly superior film to Charlize Theron’s Netflix action adventure film The Old Guard, but not quite on the level of her big screen hip action thriller Atomic Blonde, from which Papushado draws some inspiration.

While not among the best films of the year, the ease of access and high rewatchability make Gunpowder Milkshake a clear choice for action fans to take a chance on with their Netflix subscriptions while waiting for the next Marvel film or John Wick installment to arrive.


Snake Eyes: Fighting with a dull blade

Henry Golding broke out in 2018 as the charming boyfriend in Jon M. Chu’s hit romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians.

Since that time, the Malaysian actor has built a reputation for using his good looks and charisma with successful supporting turns in films like the thriller A Simple Favor, dramedy Last Christmas and crime dramedy The Gentlemen.

His first major lead role is a woeful misuse of Golding’s talent and skillset to this point as director Robert Schwentke strangles out any personality the actor might bring to the table with a stoic, borderline unlikeable character in hopes of restarting an unpopular action franchise based on a children’s cartoon and toy line.

Snake Eyes functionally erases everything about the well-established hero from the G.I. Joe series and hits the reset button for a third time after failed attempts to launch a franchise with 2009’s G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra and 2013’s G.I. Joe: Retaliation, directed ironically enough by Chu.

In this iteration of the title character, Snake Eyes is a drifter wandering across the world looking for a fight when he stumbles into the middle of a war between the Yakuza and the Arashikage clan, where he saves the life of a potential rival and trains in the ways of the ninja.

The film functionally does both the character and Golding himself a major disservice by blurring the line too much between Snake Eyes as an anti-hero and an antagonist. There’s no real reason to root for Snake Eyes other than Golding’s innate likeability as he bafflingly waffles both sides of the coin to the point where it doesn’t even really feel like writers Evan Spiliotopoulos, Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse know what to do with him.

Golding is clearly trying here, both physically by putting himself through rigorous training to do as many of the stunts himself as possible and emotionally to try and draw anything out of an underdeveloped character. But unfortunately nothing seems to be working.

The same could be said for Andrew Koji’s Tommy, a man who craves to be trusted and loyal but without any real motivation. The film’s true villains also lack distinctive motivations beyond cursory nods to G.I. Joe’s rival Cobra organization and it’s only Samara Weaving’s introduction as fellow “Joe” Scarlett that provides Snake Eyes with any punch in the latter half of the film.

Snake Eyes prides itself on intense hand-to-hand and sword-to-sword action sequences, but all too often these moments are plagued by poor cinematography, or worse yet, inherently terrible lighting that masks and distracts from the deliberate, methodical work of the stars and stunt teams.

As is most often the case in subpar fight-intensive films, the pivotal sequence in the final act is shrouded in the cover of darkness with pitch-black layers obscuring a car chase scene and combat on an 18-wheeler leading into a mystic battle in tight spaces with random blazes of fire lighting the way.

Audiences quite often won’t know what they’re watching on screen, which allows Schwentke to cut corners visually and attempt to create excitement via parlor tricks. It certainly doesn’t help that a film that prides itself on realism in its combat resorts to CGI-heavy machinations in its final moments, shortchanging some solid early work and leaving a bitter taste in viewers’ mouths.

While it’s clear Paramount is trying to draw in new audiences, Snake Eyes is too forgettable to generate any traction with viewers reluctant to go to the theaters for just any movie.

Rebooting G.I. Joe this way is simply rolling the dice over and over again, expecting it not to land on double ones.


Space Jam A New Legacy: Not quite a slam dunk

Basketball superstar LeBron James showed a lot of promise for a post-playing career as an actor with a small, yet hysterical supporting turn as a caricature of himself in 2015’s Trainwreck.

In the six years that have followed, “King James,” as he is known in NBA circles, has won championships with multiple teams and rivaled Michael Jordan for the unofficial title of greatest player of all time.

James returned to the big screen for the first time in six years this weekend, chasing after Jordan with what could be considered either a spiritual sequel or outright reboot of the 1996 children’s classic Space Jam.

Space Jam: A New Legacy stars James as a fictionalized version of himself, trapped inside the computer substructure inside Warner Brothers Studios dubbed the “Warnerverse” and forced to team up with Looney Tunes characters Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and the gang to win a basketball game to save his kidnapped son.

It’s readily apparent to be a modernization of the initial premise that saw Jordan play hoops with the “Toon Squad,” but an additional half-hour to the running time allows director Malcolm D. Lee to cram in as much I.P. as possible as an animated version of James flies across the Warner universe through Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, DC comic books, Casablanca and even the dystopian science-fiction world of Mad Max: Fury Road.

Often these one-off gags miss the mark and bloat the film unnecessarily; there’s no need for the evil clown Pennywise from It to watch a basketball game other than to be a distraction.

When the moments are well animated and ironically enough James isn’t involved, however, they can land for an amused chuckle that will sail right over kids’ heads.

James himself isn’t a terrible actor. It’s just that the screenplay from writers Terence Nance, Tony Rettenmaier and Juel Taylor is mediocre that the basketball star isn’t able to score given bad setups and bland dialogue.

With A New Legacy, James is actually probably about at the same level Jordan was as a performer in the mid-90s, but there isn’t a Bill Murray to riff off of or an Ivan Reitman producing the film to raise the comedic talent involved.

Oscar nominee Don Cheadle – whose other HBO Max film No Sudden Move is among the year’s best features – isn’t holding back at all as the villain, a computer algorithm richly named Al. G Rhythm, because that’s the level of thought being put into the narrative of the film.

Acting largely against a green screen and likely not even with James in the same room, Cheadle cranks the volume up to 11 in a performance that’s cartoonishly menacing and one that kids will enjoy hating while parents roll their eyes, perfect for the film’s target audience.

Warner Brothers’ animation department is filling up the proverbial stat sheet with this film, both in the volume of content drawn into each frame and in the visual artistry required to achieve the number of looks desired in the film. The strongest sections of A New Legacy come in the digitized world and there’s always something to look at that should hold the attention of kids on a fifth, tenth or hundredth re-watch.

A New Legacy feels very much like James need to continue to take the mantle from Jordan rather than make his own movie on his own merits.

In the end, it’s a Looney Tunes movie where the cartoons are significantly better than their live-action counterparts and the Ready Player One-esque Easter eggs littered throughout just distract from audience engagement, which is probably a good thing.

The film’s simultaneous release in theaters and home streaming on HBO Max makes it incredibly easy to watch, something that nostalgic adults who grew up in the 90s can give a shot with little effort or expense and something its intended audience – children 6-12 – can watch on a loop during a long summer break.


Black Widow: Filling in the gaps

Marvel has taken a two-year hiatus from the big screen following the climatic events of Avengers: Endgame.

Although the studio has produced several successful miniseries in the meantime for Disney+, fans had to wait an extra year for Phase IV of Marvel’s feature film franchise to begin with the COVID-19 pandemic delaying the release of Black Widow, expected to be the final entry in the series for longtime star Scarlett Johansson as the titular assassin.

Director Cate Shortland takes significant inspiration from the spy genre to craft her feature, beginning with an intimate, subdued world of counterintelligence and balancing that against a more bombastic realm of comic book influence for a pleasing two-hour ride.

Black Widow takes place out of chronological order, in the fallout of Captain America: Civil War rather than Avengers: Endgame. Natasha Romanoff is on the run from authorities and stumbles into a faceoff with her long-lost younger sister Yelena Belova and the infamous Red Room, a Soviet assassin program that trained them both.

Johansson is solid in a film that should have come out five years ago to take more advantage of her character arc in the proper context, but the actress has such natural control of the character at this point that she naturally falls into the role regardless of the time jump. It’s a confident, driven action performance that carries the weight of the film on its shoulders while allowing others on screen to shine around her.

While Johansson is the far more established star in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Black Widow places her at the same importance level as Florence Pugh, as if Johansson is passing the torch on to a key figure in the next generation of the franchise. Establishing Yelena takes up as much screen time as rounding out Natasha’s storyline, with a sisterly bond between the two characters redefining the elder sister’s arc throughout eight films and creating motivation for the younger sister’s journey still to come.

Johansson and Pugh have incredible chemistry on screen and their natural balance shines in both physical action sequences and more subdued, character driven moments. The pair onscreen together are the highlight of Black Widow.

Pugh especially carries every scene she’s in with a performance that’s as if she had been playing Yelena for 10 years like Johansson has with Natasha.

David Harbour does a good job playing both comic relief and emotional support as the pair’s father figure Red Guardian, while Rachel Weisz’s Melina is woefully underwritten and played overly passive for a spy of her caliber.

As is the case with most Marvel films, the villains are underwhelming with Ray Winstone’s General Dreykov serving as the quiet man in the shadows who may or may not be dead. 

The classic Marvel baddie Taskmaster is almost completely robotic, save for one moment. While the initial combat sequence between Taskmaster and Black Widow is solid, showcasing the villain’s ability to mimic the opponent’s combat style, it often felt that the character was included for the sake of having an iconic villain in the film rather than actually serving a material purpose.

Action evolves over the course of Black Widow, leaning more on a grounded hand-to-hand and car chase style reminiscent of Jason Bourne or James Bond films in the first hour and ramping up the spectacle as time goes on. The pacing and relative lack of action scenes may disappoint some Marvel fans looking for larger set pieces, but the compelling narrative does make up for this in large part.

Within the context of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, Black Widow falls somewhere in the middle third of the series as a whole as it lacks the long-term storytelling payoffs or dynamic energy of other films in the franchise.

But for an audience starved of superhero action adventure on the big screen, Black Widow certainly holds its own as a solid MCU movie and an important one moving forward that’s well worth the price of admission.


No Sudden Move: A crime thriller for Steven

Steven Soderbergh makes movies with only one audience in mind: Steven Soderbergh.

The filmmaker behind classics like Erin Brockovich, the Ocean’s Eleven trilogy and Traffic is well into a point in his career where he has a clear vision for what he wants to do, can do it quickly and loves to experiment with the visual form as his own personal art project. 

It’s why he can quickly move from shooting a basketball drama on iPhones with High Flying Bird to plot-twisting vignette pieces strung together in The Laundromat to his latest film, a period crime drama that may fly well over the heads of casual audiences but could make ardent cinephiles re-watch over and over again for the little cinematic flourishes.

Three random criminals unfamiliar with each other are hired to “babysit” a blackmail victim and his family, only to see their relatively simple assignment spiral far beyond their control and sink far into the deeps of the underbelly of 1950s Detroit. While it rarely confronts these issues head-on, No Sudden Move reeks with deep-seeded racism and disenfranchisement of the period and larger conspiracy on a national level.

At the center of the film, Don Cheadle is a contemplative force as Curt Goynes, fresh out of prison and in need of quick cash. Although audiences are never truly sure what anyone in the film is thinking, Cheadle allows viewers to see Curt’s mind constantly churning possible scenarios and escape hatches in order to make it through rich and alive.

It’s the least flashy performance in a film filled with characters, yet Cheadle’s constant, steady presence gives the audience something to latch onto as the slow-burn, deliberate narrative moves along.

This is perfectly contrast by a dodgy, controlled mania from mobster-on-the-out Ronald Russo, played by Benicio del Toro. The Usual Suspects star is tailor-made for these sort of crime thrillers as his work often leaves viewers on the edge of their seat in nervous anticipation of what’s to come next as del Toro plays each role so in the moment that there’s genuine surprise as events roll out in real time.

Cheadle and del Toro have choppy chemistry on-screen, but this works in a film where trust is at an intense low and both actors feel like they’re working each other so as not to get worked themselves.

The film boasts a cavalcade of terrific performers littered throughout that give No Sudden Move a distinctly vibrant, character driven feel.

Kieran Culkin is intensely slimy as a criminal ringleader, while Ray Liotta evokes the dark side of his Goodfellas past as an unscrupulous crime boss. Uncut Gems breakout Julia Fox steals scenes as Liotta’s wife who may be cheating with Ronald, while David Harbour gives one of his best performances as the main victim with secrets of his own.

A major cameo left unspoiled here is the perfect jarring awake of the audience that the film needs to ramp things up to its climatic end and the scene featuring the uncredited star is among the most intriguing. Writer Ed Solomon’s terrific screenplay truly comes alive in this moment as a discussion of the randomness of events melds with social context that puts everything that came before into a new light.

Nothing is given or telegraphed to the audience as the plot weaves and winds its way through the narrative. Soderbergh and Solomon make a clear, conscious decision not to let the minutia of over explanation get in the way of driving things forward as the camera follows Curt and Ronald deeper into trouble.

No Sudden Move floats through its two-hour run time thanks to some silky, velvet covered visuals from Soderbergh in conjunction with cinematographer Peter Andrews. Shot with modern cameras equipped with period lenses, most scenes have a fish-eye quality to them that rounds and obscures the view. This pairs exceptionally well with Soderbergh’s high contrast lighting and distinctly off-kilter camera placement that finds the audience looking up from a tilted head at characters or at an almost two-dimensional parallel.

Warner Brothers’ decision to release No Sudden Move in July exclusively on HBO Max pretty much excludes any possibility of an awards season run for the Soderbergh film, which is among the very best of his last decade of work. It’s doubly disappointing not to be able to watch this mid-budget adult drama on the big screen as it’s exactly the kind of film that could draw out moviegoers hoping to make a return to the theater after more than a year away to see a film that isn’t a popcorn franchise film.

No Sudden Move is a low-risk, high-reward offering for cinephiles who will either quickly engage with Soderbergh’s unique perspective or be able to move on to other films without too much commitment thanks to it streaming on HBO Max.