Saturday, October 30, 2021

Serialized Killers: HALLOWEEN KILLS and

A big part of loving a horror franchise is often loving the movies even when you don’t like them. I think that’s probably what’s happening with fans of Halloween when looking at Halloween Kills. This sequel to 2018’s reboot once again finds the masked Michael Myers stalking the streets of Haddonfield on Halloween night, this one picking up mere seconds after the last ended with his perpetual final girl Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) seemingly trapping him in a burning building. This new one has a great early scene in which the Strodes, weeping and exhausted in the back of an escaping truck (a la Texas Chain Saw Massacre), see a fleet of firetrucks speed by in the opposite direction. “Let it burn!” Laurie howls. Chilling stuff. Will the masked killer escape the building, slaughter the first responders, and keep on stabbing? What do you think? Of course the audience, having seen all the other movies that the new ones pretend didn’t happen—namely Halloweens two through eight—knows that Myers is nigh unkillable and a total psychological blank. These folks, having only experienced the terror in the classic original, would have a much more limited view of his danger. That’s why it’s funny to see this movie build back up the mythos, like it’s speed-running the ones it previously ignored. It finds a town gripped with certainty that Myers is a totem of unstoppable evil and must be hunted down, to the point where survivors of the ’78 film are now much older and prowling around looking to confront the monster and kill him themselves, whipping up frenzies and gathering hunting parties before inevitably walking right into their own slaughters.  

This is an idea director David Gordon Green (now on his fourth filmmaking identity after art house indie darling, stoner comedy helmer, and star-driven based-on-a-true-story maker) uses to make a commentary on mob mentality, which is weirdly undercut by the fact that, given the franchise’s evidence so far, Myers really is the rare guy who should be taken out. He’ll just keep stabbing otherwise. The movie, then, asks us to root against the people who want to stop him and enjoy the extravagantly bloody kills as sharp objects jab into people quickly established for the purpose of feeling a little bad as the gore geysers. It’s entirely confused, and ends with an hour-long chain reaction of inscrutable decisions on the part of everyone on screen. Best and worst is that it sidelines Curtis in a hospital for the entire runtime, keeping her almost completely separated from the main action and never really in danger. At least she didn’t have to get involved in all this violent nonsense. It’s funny that a series that started with John Carpenter’s stone-cold genre classic and was immediately ripped off by hundreds of filmmakers has never been able to approach that level of skill again, and, in fact, has only made sequels worse than the best of the rip offs. I’ll give Halloween Kills this, though. It’s definitely a Halloween. There’s even a neat flashback prologue where Jim Cummings plays a Haddonfield deputy on the original night. For fans, that, and the return of all the old signifiers of the series, might be enough.

For my money, Paranormal Activity is one of the main horror series for which weak entries have yet to dim my affection. I love the whole project, even when individual films within it are bad, which they are about half the time. Par for the course, I suppose. Final Destination. Friday the 13th. Scream. Nightmare on Elm Street. Chucky. The great horror series are all so iconoclastic that the ideas and imagery push fans through all kinds of subpar stuff. With Paranormal Activity movies, I like the slow and steady feature-length crescendos, and the ways in which the scares come not from any recurring slasher but from the filmmaking techniques. Here’s a franchise that teaches the audience to study the frame and the angle to be able to predict from where the unsettling qualities will creep in. The characters are always trying to figure out what exactly is going on in the setting, with strange bumps in the night and eerie circumstances escalating slowly but surely.

The original was a resourceful $15,000 homemade project from some self-taught amateurs that was such a scary use of its found-footage concept. It gives these films a queasy semi-real intimacy that makes, say, the sudden slamming of a door in the middle of the night truly spine-tingling. When the frame is a static shot of a bedroom, or the screen cycles through security feeds, or the camera is placed on an oscillating fan, the very predictability of the pattern has an audience leaning in to spot the unsettling details that may or may not emerge. It plays on that typical horror film idea that we do and do not want to see what’s hiding just…around…that…dark…corner. This makes for great scares throughout the series, and the best (1, 3, and 5 in my book, with some good sequences in 2 and 4, too) pass the hair-on-the-back-of-the-neck lights-on-in-the-house-that-night test.

After some downtime following a largely unsatisfying 3D effort back in 2015, Paramount has brought back the little franchise that could for a Halloween treat. The new idea is Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin, and it’s barely connected to the mythology built up before. Instead of a close-quarters haunted house experience, it changes up the setting to a wide-frame wintry fields-and-forests vision. The grey sky and chilled air—and vast silent stretches of isolated nowhere—builds the same sense of paranoia and unease. The film follows a young woman (Emily Bader) whose boyfriend (Roland Buck III) goes with her to upstate New York to meet the family she never knew. Discovering that she was adopted after her birth mother, an Amish teenager fleeing her family, left her out-of-wedlock baby at a hospital, she decides to make a documentary about her reunion. Hence an excuse for another movie of self-shot footage. (It also looks a little too slick for the series’ usually rougher effect. Once or twice I even had to ask myself what in-story camera got certain angles.) The family live in a tiny village with a few houses, an enormous barn, and a mysterious locked church in the middle of the woods. While our protagonists settle in for a week’s stay, we start to get the sense that the Amish family isn’t quite on the level. And just before you start to wonder if it’s all a bit insensitive in its folk-horror spin on a real religious minority, you’ll probably guess these cultists aren’t really Amish.

The setting is novel for these movies, and the lead performance is appealing, but the shivers it tries to spin are, after some time, all tired echoes of previous tricks. That gives more time to wonder why characters do what they do. By the time I’d discovered the possibly haunted room directly above the guest quarters, or the hidden cultist passages under the ground, or the hidden supply closet of [spoilers], I think I wouldn’t stay that last night. Nonetheless, director William Eubank (whose deep-sea Alien riff Underwater made good use of economical dark corners) and the series’ regular screenwriter Christopher Landon (whose Happy Death Days and Freaky are crowd-pleasingly clever horror treats) do what they can to wring suspense. There are some shadowy secret passages, a deep hole in the ground, and a fiery climax, including a genuinely funny thrill when a couple characters go through hell to get to their van and realize they left the keys back at the beginning of the escape sequence. But overall it’s mostly a long wait for a meager pay off, as the worst of these so often are. It’s a pleasant enough sit to be back in the creepy vibes and shaggy conversations and low-fi effects for a while, though. I’ll be hyped for another one. Guess that makes me a fan.

The slightly more satisfying trip down memory lane for my fellow fans might be Unknown Dimension: The Story of Paranormal Activity. Now streaming on Paramount+, it is a decent promotional retrospective documentary—closer to the sort of thing that would’ve been a DVD special back in the day than longer, more in-depth efforts like Crystal Lake Memories, a nearly seven-hour look at Friday the 13ths' creation—that shows the ingenuity and cleverness behind the series’ construction. It interviews all the principal creatives of cast and crew and is honest about some of the mistakes that were made in growing the series. (Producer Jason Blum admits “4 and 6 are the weakest.”) It’s nice to see clips and remember the context for each entry while hearing the thought processes and negotiations behind their makings. (I never tire of hearing that Steven Spielberg was so freaked out by the original that he returned his screener in a garbage bag.) It’s enough to make this viewer want to revisit the whole series. That it ends with an uncritical ad for the new feature is just something horror fans have to be used to by now. There’s no great idea that can’t be done again and again and again, for better and worse. And we’ll show up for it.


The French Dispatch is an impeccable handcrafted artifice somehow turning into the purest sincerity at the same time. It is, in other words, a Wes Anderson film. He’s a filmmaker who can make intricate dollhouse constructions over the darkest of melancholies. He’s one of our great appreciators of style and tone, able to take a gleaming picture of theatrical techniques and literary flourishes, pack it dense with allusions and yet give it surface pleasures all its own. He’s best at building out little pocket worlds—an eccentric wealthy New York family in The Royal Tenenbaums, a brotherly train tour of India in The Darjeeling Limited, a tiny New England island community in Moonrise Kingdom, or, his best, the towering, luxurious European mountain getaway in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Within he can indulge his eye for design—a blend of vintage mid-century aesthetics informed by a well-curated artistic intellect—while building up beautiful sadness and delightful serendipities. There’s no wonder the astonishing emotional power he can build—whether a gentle reconciliation between father and child, or a bittersweet acknowledgement of encroaching fascism bringing a golden age to a close—can catch viewers by surprise, if they can see it at all, beneath his dazzling, droll surface precision.

His latest takes as its conceit the last issue of a fictional magazine, The French Dispatch, upon the death of its founder, editor, and chief benefactor. The old man (Bill Murray) willed it so. One gets the sense it wouldn’t have the money to keep going without him. He expired near the end of editing the latest volume of what we’re told is an outgrowth of a weekend supplement for his late father’s Kansas-based newspaper that became, over the course of fifty years, its own periodical run out of storybook-perfect, snow-globe-pretty Ennui, France (the sly Francophilia is from the heart). It was a haven for the sort of literary journalists and essayists that flourished in the early to mid twentieth century. (The first card of the end credits lists, in tribute, several who serve as inspirations for Anderson’s inventions, from E.B. White and Lillian Ross to A.J. Liebling and James Baldwin.) The film becomes an amusing, eclectic mixture of that era’s art, music, design, and politics run through the typical Andersonian styles. But above all it is driven by evoking long, discursive, artfully poetic journalistic inquiries, some terse typewriter clatter, others honeyed descriptive detail. This kind of magazine writing has been practically driven extinct, save a few New Yorker-style holdouts, over the last few decades of rapacious hedge fund buyouts and relentless internet erosion of readership and attention.

It’s this sense of a bygone era that animates the movie’s wistfulness. As it begins with a death, it feels all the more like an end of that era. The movie is set in 1975, a time when a magazine like this still seemed almost the norm. Anderson begins with the editor’s obituary, and then dramatizes the four articles that make up the farewell publication. Each begins with the title positioned in crisp type, and is greeted with lovely pastiche prose that sounds just right for the period and style. They’re narrated by the journalists—a laid-back observational man-about-town (Owen Wilson), a snooty and secretly wild art expert (Tilda Swinton), a persnickety quasi-radical researcher too close to her subjects (Francis McDormand), and a refined, poetic appreciator of appetites (Jeffrey Wright). Each section is thus framed as a nesting doll—authors recounting stories within their essayistic impressions to interlocutors in faded color stock, bursting into beautiful black-and-white reportage that still further blooms into vivd color at key moments of artistic transcendence.

Thus these dispatches proceed as a collection of lovely little short stories told in a collage of filmmaking techniques. They mix film stocks and aspect ratios, split-screen juxtapositions, vigorous intuitive montage, miniatures, rear projection, slide-away stage walls, freeze frames made by actors standing still, stop-motion and hand-drawn animation. It’s a Whitman’s sampler box of a film: a sturdy, segmented container with a place for each bite-size bit of everything Anderson can do, every little nugget crafted for distinct aesthetic appeals and bittersweet surprises bursting when bit into and chewed over. The resulting stories are all in their own ways about the oddities of human experience and the dilemmas in which eccentrics and artists can find themselves. They’re over-brimmed with petty disappointments, deep wells of sadness, and grand attempts at connection outside oneself. First is a bicycle tour through the town of Ennui. The next takes us to the world of a prisoner (Benicio del Toro) painting his muse, a beautiful guard (Léa Seydoux). An art dealer (Adrian Brody) wants to invest. The next has a college activist (Timothée Chalamet) who wants to change the world, or maybe just find a lover, as he’s groping toward a manifesto. Then we get the tale of a taste test in a police kitchen (run by chef Steve Park and cop Mathieu Amalric) interrupted by an urgent kidnapping investigation. (That one gives new meaning to the term pot-boiler, eh?) The stories never quite go the way you’d think, and take detours into the silly, the tragic, and the profound, sometimes even all at once. Each ends back in the editor’s office as he mulls over some suggestions. His favorite is one all good English teachers should adopt: “Try to make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose.”

That’s what Anderson does, too. He makes movies with rigorous structure and visual whimsy, together drawing out his whip-smart dry dialogue, textured thematic concerns, and layered images with clear intentionality and a crystal clear unity of form and purpose. This latest is deceptively light, the stories tossed off and slighter than the richness of his character work in other films. But as it draws to a close, it has a cumulative effect. Throughout, we see characters engaged in all kinds of artistic pursuits—painting, cooking, philosophizing, writing—and appreciations—viewing, eating, buying, reading. We see madness in pursuit of new tastes and new visions, and we see the comfort of finding those who understand you through your ideas, your perspective, your words. In these ways, the segments speak to each other, and build to a lovely epilogue that ties the larger portrait together. It’s about art’s capacity to draw us outwards and upwards toward the beautiful, no matter how fleeting. And it’s the story of a man through the work he shepherded—a true editor’s funeral. And it’s a filmmaker at the height of his powers, in total control over his techniques. One can sit and marvel: look at it go. In the list of artistic pursuits it demonstrates and venerates, it makes sure filmmaking is always one of them.

Saturday, October 23, 2021

Spice World: DUNE

An audience first coming to Frank Herbert’s Dune through its latest adaptation will recognize its component parts from sci-fi and fantasy that have followed its original 1965 publication. It has Avatar’s interplanetary extractive industry colonists, Game of Thrones’ feuding feudal families, and Star Wars’ galactic empire, potential rebels, and mysterious psychic sects. Though threads from its tapestry are shared in its genre compatriots, its sense of ponderous impenetrability, a DeMille-by-way-of-Asmiov majestic Old Testament density, is an impressive edifice all its own. Denis Villeneuve is the third filmmaker to attempt a screen translation of this major work in the sci-fi canon. After David Lynch wrestled it down to one film to mixed results in 1984, and a team of television makers did a more faithful miniseries for Sci-Fi Channel in 2000 (with cheap digital effects that were slightly impressive at the time, but now have more in common with Windows 98 screensavers), this 150-minute effort tells the first half of the book. We meet the Atredies, a ruling family (parents Rebecca Ferguson and Oscar Isaac, and son Timothée Chalamet) who have, at the Emperor’s command, taken over the production of spice—a drug that doubles as spaceship fuel—from the evil Harkonnens. That family got rich off the mines on the desert planet of Arrakis, but fought the indigenous Fremen at every turn. The Atredies hope to win wealth with peace instead. Nice idea, but the sturm und drang of galactic unrest churns conspiracies in which nasty, greedy, scrabbling people in dark rooms and ominous shadows scheme to take them down.

Villeneuve sets the stage well. His pivot from the heavy thrillers that brought him to Hollywood (Prisoners, Sicario) to ponderous science fiction (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049) has been a productive one. His eye for cold majesty and ear for terse genre dialogue is the keen balance of cinematic poetry and prose that makes for some fine stunning vistas of imagination. Here we get something like and yet unlike other space operas. There’s a love of grand takes offs and landings, watching the gears turn on enormous dragonfly-winged helicopters and monolithic ships, and the sliding doors on the side of New Age ziggurats rising out of the desert like something in a nouveau-ancient-Egyptian-revival. He knows how to accumulate detail and give it the undertow of inevitable tragedy. He creates a world of awe-filled spectacle, balanced between dread and drama while playing off its sense of having returned from an alien future world with the kind of attentive visual splendor you’d find in a Biblical epic or Shakespearean tragedy. One might think of L.P. Hartley’s famous line claiming “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” So, too, the future. Here we are dropped into a tangle of ongoing political machinations, colonial strife, religious prophecies and rituals, and cut-throat capitalist ceremony, and watch as various factions—draped in flowing robes and bedazzled headpieces, skin-tight battle suits and protective gear—intone gravely about all they fear is to come. We learn the various groups’ traditions and values, their rituals and hopes, and then watch them all collide and blow apart.

The result is a grand introduction that may or may not go anywhere. It leaves the sense of feeling incomplete. As it trudges along so seriously and full of grave pronouncements, Chalamet contemplates the heavy crown of his future, while the others strut and pose and fret in cavernous sets. It gets a bit monotonous from time to time. I found myself spending the last thirty minutes or so wondering on what cliffhanger it would end more than I was wrapped up in the narrative. Maybe the whole thing would play better after a second feature, cut together as one five-hour sprawl. Because it has the soul of a Ten Commandments (maybe the best comparison point, if you bled it of its overtly colorful camp qualities) straining to escape and go on and on and on. Instead it finds every thread and arc halted abruptly with a cut to black while somehow still stretching to fill its space. (The last line: “this is only the beginning.”) So it’s half a movie. But it’s an intriguing one, full of striking design and heavy soundscapes. It’s a feast of bit parts for a huge eclectic ensemble of familiar actors crowding around the margins—Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Charlotte Rampling, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Jason Momoa, Zendaya—who are prepared to chew around expositional jargon with perfect gravity. It has images that tower with the most literally awesome of any Hollywood epic, and sound that rumbles and quakes with import. Clearly everyone involved cared. It’s an experience, compelling with every wide shot and sonic flourish. But it’s hard to feel too excited when it hits an inciting incident and then peters out.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021


Mia Hansen-Løve is one of our most attentive filmmakers, crafting narratives with the ease of lived experience and characters brimming with relational tensions and satisfactions. There’s something so finely tuned and yet so relaxed in her framing and her generosity for performers. And she brings deceptively simple, tender ways to capture moments of interpersonal shifts so charged with the electricity of human connection that one can practically feel the emotion tingling on the back of the neck. It’s beautiful. Take her 2012 feature Goodbye, First Love, one of the most achingly earnest explorations of young love in all its sensual dimensions and inevitable heartbreaks. She films these ordinary entanglements with all the freshness and novelty the characters would feel, and with the openness and perspective to see how fleeting are the moments and yet how how long-lasting the impact.

With her latest, Bergman Island, she makes an ode to cinephiles and filmmaking in the most loving way, telling stories within stories. She follows a couple (Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth), both screenwriters, as they book a writing retreat on Fårö, the Swedish island where the great Ingmar Bergman lived and worked. He’s the auteur behind such classic philosophical and psychological classics as The Seventh Seal, with its knight playing chess with death amidst the plague, and Persona, in which two women by the seaside slowly seem to start sharing mental states. Bergman made films alive with religious and moral dimensions as they push at the austere edges of what cinema can do. He opens up space for close identification, and deep contemplation. That they’re also often full of life—funny, idiosyncratic, playful, personable, and profound—is something those who know him only by reputation sometimes miss. His films often find people in moments of emotional extremities, contemplating endings of one kind (divorce, retirement) or another (disease, despair, death). How fun, then, that Hansen-Løve has given us a movie that’s all beginnings, with a central character struggling with how to end her latest story.

It’s ultimately not just a tip of the hat to one of cinema’s grand old masters, or a winking parade of references for cinephiles to smile and nod and check the box. It’s an encouraging and earnest grappling with his themes in the style and tone of another’s. Sure, Hansen-Løve starts her film on the level of a lark, with the couple settling into a house and discussing their location’s importance, taking in a screening, going on tours. But this isn’t just spot-the-allusion comedy; it’s a genuine character piece, with a couple of writers talking honestly about their work, their inspirations, their ideas, and the ways in which their relationship and their surroundings affect them. But then the movie reveals its fullest form when Krieps asks Roth for advice on her screenplay. She has a great start, but can’t figure out where to go from there. And so she tells him her outline so far. And from there, the movie becomes that movie, with her narrating. And it’s even better than the one we’ve been watching! It stars Mia Wasikowska as a young woman traveling to Bergman Island for a friend’s wedding, an event at which she’ll be reunited, for the first time in a long time, with her first love (Anders Danielsen Lie). There’s fine-tuned restrained melodrama here, as the couple, both with relationships back home, cautiously approach a revival of past feelings. The movie crackles with romantic tension as both actors embody their past experiences and potential future coming together. The heartfelt push-pull of this romantic suspense transcends feeling constrained by its movie-within-a-movie nature; it has the swooning fullness and compelling dilemma of the best films.

Hansen-Løve frames the act of storytelling as something of a magic trick, with all the hard labor of synthesizing inspirations and experiences and locations in a way that somehow adds up to us feeling and thinking and dreaming with fictional people. This is part of what makes the film so charming. And her ease with actors gives it the extra dazzling layer. This is no mere academic exercise or referential reverence for closed-off worlds of cinephilic knowledge. (Although it’s not not that in some ways. If this film encourages people to become Bergman heads, more power to it.) It’s alive with the stuff of art, with a knowledge that artists are people—complicated, difficult, full of personal eccentricities. And that not only informs their work, but is their work. Here we see the act of creation and the creation itself, sitting comfortably together. Knowing the making doesn’t diminish the full feelings it can generate. And knowing the maker doesn’t prevent us from getting lost in it. So it is with these fictional filmmakers; so it is with Bergman. In this film, so light and so lovely, we are asked to confront the beginnings of things, and in the end, it casually asks us to decide what makes for an ending that we will find fulfilling. As Margaret Atwood once reminded us, “So much for endings. Beginnings are always more fun. True connoisseurs, however, are known to favor the stretch in between, since it's the hardest to do anything with.”

Monday, October 11, 2021

Under the Microscope: FAUCI

The best service of National Geographic’s Fauci is simply to remind us that Dr. Anthony Fauci is an actual human being. The picture is a formulaic television-news-magazine-style biographical documentary constructed simply and sturdily out of lots of access, talking-head interviews, and archival footage. The idea is to sketch out the arc of his career as a dogged public servant and diligent researcher over his decades in the National Institutes of Health. The position has made him a key figure in fights against illnesses of all kinds, most notably AIDS, ebola, and COVID. This, of course, is not an uncontroversial role, as public health policy is the most intimate overlap between the demands of living in a community and the intimacy of one’s own body—not to mention that wild-haired strain of American individualism that always gums up attempts to find common ground in the greater good.

We’re currently struggling to emerge from a mismanaged pandemic where at least half of the problem has been obstinate resistance on the part of a vocal minority to doing literally anything to stop or even slow the disease. This made Fauci the target of anti-science ire and conspiracy theories from the right flank; naturally, it was met by a secular deification from some on the left. Thus the relief that the movie’s about him as a man. There’s a certain cyclical sadness one can get watching footage of right-wing religious groups angry in the 80s that Fauci is leading the charge on understanding AIDS, a disease they bigotedly assume is God’s punishment for gays, back-to-back with images of current MAGA outrage against Fauci for daring to suggest wearing masks and avoiding crowds can slow the spread of a novel respiratory disease (or whatever conspiracy du jour they’re astroturfing). At the center is a man just doing his job the best he can. He clearly cares about the health of his fellow Americans and is dutifully doing the work that can help better understand the challenges of emerging diseases and how to overcome them. The movie doesn’t build up his pedestal, but nor does it sink him by his worst miscalculations. It understands enough to approach its subject with some nuance. 

I wish the movie was as good as its intentions—and his. It’s too scattershot and scrambled chronologically—and the talking heads, Fauci aside, too character-witness polished—to really tell more than the broad strokes of any ideas. The movie’s ultimately too disorganized, hopping between themes and trends and moments in time without meaningful juxtapositions. It also has too many clips of Fox News and screenshots of Twitter trolls, more than needed to contextualize so that it almost inadvertently starts to look like counterbalance. (I let out the loudest sigh at the umpteenth clip from one of the aforementioned channel’s hosts’ hate speech.) But as the movie lets us see him at work, and hear from friends, family and colleagues, as well as hearing from some reasonable critics (like those protesting for AIDS treatments at a time when those in power were determined to ignore the problem), it can at least be refreshing to move past the hyperbole and see a person. Would that we could remember that lesson more often with public figures.

Friday, October 8, 2021

Shaken and Stirred: NO TIME TO DIE

With No Time to Die, his fifth and reportedly final turn as 007, Daniel Craig gets something no James Bond ever has before: a satisfying finale. His Bond has worn his emotions closer to the surface, albeit just behind a steely exterior. Craig brings wounded eyes and tactical ease, springing into determined action with his blunt force instrument of a body—all blocky and taut and primed like an English foxhound to hunt and sniff. And there’s a soul there enlivening a character who could’ve, and sometimes has in previous versions, passed into a collection of cliches and traditions. In comparison to other actors’ runs as Ian Fleming’s British super-spy, Craig’s films, from the sturdy fuel-injection traditionalism of Casino Royale and scattered momentum of Quantum of Solace to the more stately glossiness of Skyfall and Spectre, have violence a little more real, and a tone that’s a balance between grandeur and grit, fan service and surprise. They share with their inspirations a willingness to let plot steep in the hot water of the usual movements, chases, snooping, and peril. What’s new has been a more serialized and serious Bond shorn of overt camp. Allowing the adventures, the danger, the deaths, and the loved ones lost along the way to accumulate from one entry to the next allows Craig to play emotional notes no other could, and this film leans into it with a weary professionalism and earnest appeal between the massive explosions and topsy-turvy supervillain nonsense plotting. As Bond sizes up the odds and realizes he’s yet again the only thing standing between a mad man and a mass casualty event, he knows what he has to do, and we’re glad to see him do it all again.

The experience is a real Movie movie with a capital M, and so much of one, stretching across the big screen and a runtime nearing three hours, every sequence luxuriating in its outsized images and spectacle. No weightless gloop and flimsy trickery here, no autopilot superheroic animatics or tossed off second unit coverage. One of the best innovations of Bond in the digital age is how the filmmakers have known there’s no better effect than picturesque filmic cinematography, stunning wardrobes, striking art direction, flirtatious sex appeal, and bone-thwacking, tire-squealing stunts. The effects of all that are expert, and there’s as much dazzle to an establishing shot sweeping over a lush forest or island or handsome European city as there is a car with machine guns in the headlights or a stealth plane with unfolding wings. Along the way, this movie confidently hits all the standard 007 tropes with the retrograde mostly bled away: a melancholy romance with a sad ending; a woman (Ana de Armas) in a deep-cut dress who can help in a fight; the tense debriefs with M (Ralph Fiennes) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris); the gadgets and tech help from Q (Ben Whishaw); the meetings with regular CIA contacts (Jeffrey Wright); the parties of villainous conspirators; the secret island base full of faceless factory workers making weapons of mass destruction. It’s pure Bond-ian pleasures done up in confidently outsized frames and well-photographed glamour. These pleasures are shot and staged by Cary Joji Fukunaga (True Detective) with a fine visual imagination—looking through beveled glass, sliding around corners, drawing out the spacial relationships in intricately designed sets. The appeal of each stunt and twist is given all due impact as the screenplay (credited to Fukunaga, Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and series regulars Neal Purvis and Robert Wade) makes sure action and pathos is delivered with clockwork precision.

The film is so very serious and elegantly muddled, with a dry crackle to the dialogue and the weight of weary finality to the suspense. Fittingly we get the iteration of this character our times deserve. His problems are adding up. He’s once again retired, his designation given to a younger recruit (Lashana Lynch) who appears to be his equal in skill, if not in baggage and bad habits. Nonetheless, he’s called into a plot that takes Bond through his usual motions in pursuit of a mysterious villain that’s all tangled up in plots of the past and ominous future danger. This foe, interestingly perpendicular to the usual Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) of it all, is a stock spooky weirdo (Rami Malek, well-cast) speaking in a strangled whisper. He’s out for the MacGuffin that’ll let him, well, who knows exactly, but it’ll kill a lot of people. (That it’s a bio-engineered virus stolen from a lab gives the story all the deadly charge it needs these days.) Meanwhile, a maybe-foreshortened love story carries over from the last one, with Léa Seydoux’s mysterious French blonde given added dimension and tragedy. And both throughlines are placed in the contemporaneous geopolitical confusion that’s replaced the Cold War for Craig’s Bond. (As a vector for British identity on the world stage, this iteration is framed by the Iraq War and Brexit, after all.) Everything’s complicated, everything’s connected, and everything’s important, but how, exactly, is a tangle. It is high-stakes Lucy-and-the-football with the same people on all sides making similar mistakes of apocalyptic contingency plans and misplaced trust, reaping unintended consequences over and over to calamitous effect.

Still, that’s just the background chatter and burbling subtext for another movie that interrogates the idea of whether or not a James Bond type of secret agent could make much progress in the world today, even in a fantasy like this. The movie’s answer is that he might as well try to make things better while he can. The result is lushly, and with even a kind of terse melodrama, presented. It’s a curtain call with real closure—studded with all of what Craig does well, and little of what Bond movies don’t. It’s large and romantic and thrilling and taking big satisfying chances. (I especially liked the ways in which it shifts the meaning of the term “Bond girl” in at least a couple ways never before tried.) Craig is allowed to play with a full range of set pieces and sentiment, showcasing his equal ease taking in sobering revelations or interpersonal humanity as he is driving a motorcycle up a large public staircase to launch himself over a wall. And in the end, the movie gives him a fine farewell, wrapping up loose ends without overworking the frayed edges, and delivering a heaping dose of stiff-upper-lip sentimentality. When so many franchises are playing safe and teasing more, how fulfilling to see an entry in a long-running series leave it all on the table. With real closure, and real poignancy, and even a gentle touch in its final scene, No Time to Die uses its time well.

Wednesday, October 6, 2021


In 2007, David Chase’s classic New Jersey mobster drama The Sopranos left us with a last supper. Now, it returns to us with The Many Saints of Newark, a prequel. It’s nothing if not consistent—a sprawling story deeply engaged with struggles of masculinity, family, moral weight, and the agonizing dissatisfying guilt the comes from a lifetime of sin. It’s religious and contemplative, torn between atonement and destruction, the holy and profane. That it’s also a multi-generational story of America in decline, a sad pack of boomers chasing the glory of their fathers and leaving less and less opportunity or exit strategy to their children, makes it uniquely suited to chronicle its moment and prefigure ours. But it’s also, at its core, and perhaps at its most appealing, a series about a husband, a wife, their children, and extended family connections; it’s the domestic dramas set up as counterpoint and intersection with the gangster plot lines that are the glue that holds the audience’s affection together. A viewer invested in them as a family, and the accumulation of character detail and thematic concerns consistently streamed forth from that font. A reason why the sudden cut to black in the series’ final episode is so shocking—still a jolt, a chill—is that it not only amplifies the ambiguity long embedded in the show’s philosophical concerns, but denies us closure on the people who, however deeply imperfect and morally compromised, have a humanity we learned to care about. Cold comfort it may be to know the cut to black is headed for us all no matter what we do. But it’s good to know life goes on and on and on and on until then, and for others after.

I like that Chase maintains the mystery of that moment, to the extent that any continuation of the Soprano family story simply had to go back in time. For a family, and a business, to concerns with legacy and lineage, it’s still a rich vein to mine. It feels haunted by future events, an inevitability that what’s set in motion here will reverberate down through the generations. There’s preordained tragedy in the mob life, a foreshortening of life and opportunity when the family and The Family are inextricable, petty crime and petty slights in the same terrible chain of cause and effect. Many Saints finds its main character in Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), a father and uncle whose absence, having long been whacked when Sopranos began, shaped some of his descendant’s actions and perspectives. Here he’s still in the prime of his life. It’s the late 60s. (Chase’s other major feature film effort, 2012’s Not Fade Away, sets its tender musical coming-of-age story against the time’s cultural upheaval.) In this new film Newark is burning. Gangsters are scheming. The world seems to be coming apart, and for the members of the interconnected Jersey crime families their underworld black market power is the thing that gives their lives structure and some sense of control. You can see why a young Tony Soprano (here played by the late, great James Gandolfini’s son Michael in a finely tuned performance) would think this time was a golden age of sorts, although the deaths and prison sentences might make one think it’s no better than his own.

This anxiety of influence as it relates to generations cycles of dysfunction and distress animates Chase’s screenplay, co-written by Lawrence Konner and directed by Alan Taylor, series' vets both. It becomes a movie about people who almost know the way to do the right thing, but, mirroring the show’s Zeno’s paradox of morality, never can get there. Here it’s Dickie, who clashes with family and rivals, gets entangled in affairs and crimes alike, and who ultimately presents himself so slickly that the more impressionable around him might see in him a reason to perpetuate what is the cause of both the family’s wealth and its doom. That Dickie is given an almost literal angel and devil dispensing advice, in the form of a father and his twin brother (in a well-differentiated dual role for Ray Liotta) emphasizes the weight of his choices, and two potential futures. (That the whole movie is narrated from beyond the grave by another character related to him—the thing literally starts floating over gravestones where we overhear ghostly monologues—gives the project that extra weight of funereal fate.) Around him is a cavalcade of character actors playing younger versions of the old guard who haunted Tony’s adulthood: his intimidating father (Jon Bernthal) and snapping mother (Vera Farmiga), his bald bespectacled—and dangerous—Uncle Junior (Corey Stoll), and young up-and-coming gangsters like Paulie (Billy Magnussen) and Silvio (John Magaro). The extra-textual sense of winking inevitability is sometimes a nudge to the fans, but is also often adds to the overarching doom that settles around the ice-blue images and the sturdy mid-century design.

The movie is a relatively brisk two hours, but rambles and expands and never quite digs in to its shuffling surfaces. There’s something uneven—at once too much and too little—about its design, tracing a standard gangster set of concerns with hits and schemes and twists, against a larger family tapestry. It slips through time a bit, and finds pockets of characterization in which to get turned around. Without the space of a season of television, the scenes of sly humor and dark juxtapositions, simple philosophizing and earnest psychologizing, take up inordinate space. Though the movie leans on its Sopranos prequel status in ways that make this particular picture sometimes incomplete, there’s something alive in its ungainly design, especially as Chase introduces Leslie Odom, Jr. as a Black associate of the mobsters. He has his own through line that criss-crosses the other plots, and serves as intriguing counterpoint and counterbalance to their privilege, as well as valuable historical context. One scene finds a hit carried out in an army recruitment center where the flummoxed solider behind the desk yelps that Vietnam’s not his fault. Another has a white man drive a car with a dead body in the passenger seat through a line of riot cops too busy pointing artillery at protestors to notice. These ideas of whose behavior is policed, and who is allowed to get away with what, is emphasized and mirrored by the story of an innocent Italian immigrant (Michela De Rossi) who is brought into the Moltisanti family and becomes part of the mob lifestyle (with all the danger that entails) even as she dutifully takes classes to improve her English and assimilate. Even here there’s a sense that the events—moments of grace, and moments of betrayal—will continue to haunt the family, casting a long shadow.

Sunday, October 3, 2021

Revved Up: TITANE

Titane is three ideas for a movie driven into a head-on collision with each other. A female serial killer impregnated by a car pretends to be the long-lost teenage son of a troubled firefighter. If nothing else, you won’t watch it and think, oh, yeah, another one of those. And, yes, that’s actually what it’s about. It almost works. It’s a film about pain—mentally and bodily—and therefore lingers on bruises and scrapes and cuts and burns and breaks and vomit. But it’s also willing to find satisfaction in a gulp of spaghetti or a swivel of a dancer’s legs. An action as simple as a hug takes on an element of suspense. When these characters collide, moments of grace seem unlikely; even as they happen, one doubts the underlying motives. Though I’m unconvinced the movie ever fully or clearly coheres around its provocations, it’s always engaging because writer-director Julia Ducournau is driving down two tracks simultaneously, both intensely, explicitly physical and uncompromised.

First: a brutal and bruising body horror picture with sickening violence following our violent lead (a fearless Agathe Rousselle). The movie oozes, splatters, and strains. The soundtrack is amped up to rib-cage rattling levels as bodies are broken and contorted. Early murder sequences are almost pornographic in their delirious penetration. Even a requisite concocting-a-makeshift-disguise-in-a-public-bathroom scene features a wince-worthy crack of a nose against porcelain, the better to disguise her face. And wherever the knitting needle she wields as her weapon goes—her spree is closer to the queasy up-close perspective of a Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer than the genre distance of a Michael or Jason—we just know it’ll be nowhere good. There scene where she uses it for an impromptu exploration of the engine inside her is an all-time squirm-inducing displeasure.

Second: a surprisingly tender story of broken people who find each other despite a falsehood. She ends up in the home of a troubled middle-aged man (Vincent Lindon) who never found his way back to normal after the disappearance of his young son a decade prior. Now, she shows up, silent and bound in bandages to hide her grown woman’s body, claiming to be the boy grown up. He buys it immediately. And as he makes scrabbling efforts to take her under his wing and reconnect with what he thinks is the child he so desperately needs to make himself whole, the movie takes on a sick, wounded sentimentality.

Ducournau, the French filmmaker whose last film, her debut, was the similarly grotesque med-school cannibal horror picture Raw, is a confident creator of unsettling and unpleasant moments. Ah, but she does it in style, in images rich and textured even as the surfaces on which they linger can be quite disquieting. She extends an unblinking fascination with the human body, with flesh and its pleasures and failings, in ways that could be unflattering to less committed casts. Here, though, she has leads who are all in, and willing to contort themselves in vulnerable positions to make her point. Which is that people do as much damage to themselves as others in pursuit of satisfying their needs. And that interpersonal connection is the savior and sin of our fleshly prisons. It’s better than shtupping a car, at least. The movie’s total commitment to its cracked conceit ends up deflating as many expectations as it teases, squiggling and squirming away from anything expected of it. By the end, I was as worn out as I was intrigued.

Friday, October 1, 2021


Venom: Let There Be Carnage is not so much a sequel as a faint echo. The first of these Spider-Man spinoffs—largely theoretically connected to the current live-action Marvel Cinematic Universe canon so far, but one never knows—was a surprise hit back in 2018. It was also surprisingly good at what it was. That is to say, it would’ve been the best superhero movie of 2005. It was short and simple, uncomplicated and unburdened, hooked on a squiggly, committed performance by Tom Hardy as a muckraking journalist who gets fused with Venom, a gloopy alien parasite. The alien becomes a growling id in his head, when it’s not a rippling tentacled slime oozing out of him and coaxing him toward superpowered vigilantism. The thing is weirdly small-scale and legible, refreshingly so. Its very rock-dumb simplicity and willingness to build up to satisfying-enough character dilemmas made it play like quite a zag in the year of peak MCU interconnected pomposity. But it’s aged well that way, so slim and spirited and unconcerned with any larger world-building. It was a refreshing throwback then and a nice anomaly now. And the central villain being a heartless tech CEO hoping to launch himself into space off the backs of exploited workers has gained a certain charge. So to find the sequel takes all that goodwill, such as it is, and just doodles around for a bit is too bad.

At least it’s not one of those big blow-out self-important superhero sequels. This one is still trim, with the credits rolling just past the 80-minute mark. But it makes you appreciate what setup there was to the character dynamics last time. This one is mostly about the love-hate relationship between man and monster as they inhabit the same body. There are some funny moments in which Hardy flails about attacking himself as the movie teases out a workable metaphor for self-loathing, and still more enjoyment out of Venom lurking around for other hosts when they get in a fight. (There’s also the movie’s best moment: Venom wandering into a nightclub and holding court.) We get a few good moments with other returning characters, like Michelle Williams and Reid Scott who seem to be having a good time as relatively normal bystanders who reluctantly get involved in some key moments. “I thought you said no aliens,” he says at one point. “No more aliens,” she only somewhat helpfully clarifies. The movie is shot by Robert Richardson, no stranger to good-looking movies, what with the Scorseses and Tarantinos he’s lensed, and helmed by Andy Serkis, no stranger to effects, being the king of motion capture performance for Apes and Gollum alike. They’re at their best staging action with a bit of cartoony slapstick. There’s sometimes fun here. Watching it clunk along, you might almost think you’re watching a real movie.

Ah, but now I’m almost writing myself into thinking I enjoyed it more than I did. If only the thing were the sum of its best moments. Instead it's wedded to one of the most underdeveloped and under-thought villain plots in recent memory. He’s Woody Harrelson as a serial killer on death row who, through some far more convoluted reasons than an 80-minute movie needs, gets a drop of Venom in his system which turns him into an evil red gloop of tendrils and tentacles. His goal is to, well, wreak carnage and get married. He does a little of both. He breaks out of prison in an explosion of effects. Then he bides his time till he strikes again to find his fiance (Naomie Harris). Then he fights Venom. Never once does it sell a broader feeling of danger, or build to anything cumulative. It’s simply contained and separate from the main action. Harrelson isn’t given the chance to build much of a character, and the ultimate final confrontation is so flailingly amorphous it’s hard to tell whose digital glop is slicing whose. (I liked the stained glass backdrop, though. That was a nice touch.) I almost wish the movie hadn’t a villain at all. It clearly put most of the effort into Hardy’s inner struggle anyway. Everything else falls flimsy. By the end, it basically feels like treading water. Even now, I’m almost asking myself if I actually saw it, such a non-event it is.