Shaken and Stirred

No Time to Die

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Daniel Craig’s had a good run. As Bond, he delivered a much needed transformation for the Brit spy series, shouldered the best film in the entire franchise (2012’s Skyfall), and allowed considerable nuance to seep in to the characterization.

Bravo.

He needed a bold and fitting final film to cap his time with MI6, and 2015’s disappointing return to the old guard Spectre wasn’t it. A global plague pushed his finale back nearly two years. Luckily, No Time to Die was worth the wait.

Craig’s retired agent is lured back to the game (of course he is) by a global threat (of course it is) involving an old nemesis (natch), a new rival (sure) and the beauty who broke his heart.

Yes, but wait, because co-writer/director Cary Joji Fukunaga (Beasts of No Nation) takes these familiar elements in new directions, thanks mostly to Craig’s wearily vulnerable performance.

Bond is a tough gig for an actor because there has generally been so little actual acting required – or allowed. And while Craig shows us a wizened soul with humor, longing and vulnerability to spare, Fukunaga surrounds that performance with a story worthy of his send off.

Since the Craig era began, his Bond has always seemed more determined to exist in a more relatable world with more universal stakes. Here, Craig’s final outing speaks often of love, legacy, sacrifice, and precious time, against the threat of human contact itself becoming fatal. And while there are still plenty of moments to suspend disbelief, this film again benefits from the move away from the parody-ready version of 007 that reigned for decades (cheekily emphasized here by Bond’s brief adventure with Ana de Armas’s rookie agent, Paloma).

Mysterious new villain Safin (Rami Malek) shares a tragic past with Bond’s love Madeleine (Léa Seydoux), while the legendary Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) is still able to pull deadly strings from inside maximum security.

Bond’s old friend Luther (Jeffrey Wright) and an over-eager newbie (Billy Magnussen) recruit Bond for the CIA, seemingly pitting him against M”s (Ralph Fiennes) MI6 team and its new 007 agent, Nomi (Captain Marvel‘s Lashana Lynch). Can Q (Ben Whishaw) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) sit this one out and remain neutral?

Not bloody likely.

Opening with a tense and expansive 26-minute prologue, Fukunaga unveils thrilling set-pieces and gorgeous visuals that beg for a big-screen experience. Aided mightily by a soaring, throwback score from Hans Zimmer, Fukunaga infuses NTTD with a respectful sense of history while it marches unafraid into the future.

The one-liners, callbacks and gags (like Q’s multi-piece tea set) are well-placed and restrained, never undercutting the nearly three-hour mission Fukunaga clearly approached with reverence.

Where does James Bond go from here? Hard to say, but this 007 doesn’t care. Five films in 15 years have changed the character and the franchise for the better, and No Time to Die closes this chapter with requisite spectacle and fitting emotion.

A Little Familiar

The Little Things

by Hope Madden

When you see a film whose plot synopsis exactly mirrors hundreds of other movies, it is the little things you have to look for to set it apart.

Writer/director John Lee Hancock’s The Little Things introduces plenty of those small details: a massive cross high in the Hollywood hills, a gun casing, a barrette, a radio station, a dog. Like the 1990s setting, though, they mostly amount to little more than understated flourish.

Hancock (who wrote and directed The Blind Side, but I will try not to hold that against him) introduces two cops. One, Deke (Denzel Washington, always a pleasure), is a Kern County sheriff’s deputy with bad blood back in LA. The other, Baxter (Rami Malek), is a climbing homicide detective hot shot in the big town.

When Deke is sent to the city to retrieve some evidence for a county case, Baxter inexplicably pulls him into a serial killer investigation, and there you have it: haunted veteran cop, ambitious newcomer, cold blooded killer (who may or may not be Jared Leto).

Again, that barebones description could be about 300 movies and TV series, including Netflix’s current true crime mini The Night Stalker (who is mentioned once during this film). How to elevate it?

Well, four Oscars among your three leads is a start. Perhaps that’s why this police procedural turns character study so quickly.

Washington’s worn out crime fighter offers a low key emotional center, which is a needed respite from the odd Baxter. Malek’s characterization of the by-the-books half of this duo is curiously manic, and Hancock spends frustratingly little time digging into Baxter’s motivation. Still, Malek and Washington offer quick chemistry that gives their scenes some depth.

Leto delivers a characteristically tic-heavy performance—perhaps also a tad overdone. Both he and Malek help generate a little energy with their accumulated weirdness, but it’s not enough to overcome the film’s general lack of momentum or purpose.

It doesn’t help that the color, period and low boil bring to mind two wildly superior Fincher efforts—Seven and, even more clearly, Zodiac. And however competently made (and it is) or impressively cast (obviously), The Little Things just can’t distinguish itself from the pack.

Dolittle Jones

Dolittle

by George Wolf

Man, when I was a kid I wanted a Pushmi-Pullyu so bad.

I would try to get all the way through “If I Could Talk to the Animals” without messing up a lyric, and imagine how fun it would be to get one of those mythical Pushmis delivered in a crate, just like Rex Harrison in 1967’s original Dr. Dolittle.

Over thirty years later, Eddie Murphy ditched the tunes for a more straightforward comedic approach in two franchise updates, and now Robert Downey, Jr. steps in to move the doctor a little closer to Indiana.

Jones, that is.

But’s it’s Indy by way of Victorian-era Britain, as Young Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado) calls on the famous animal-taking doctor with a dispatch from Buckingham Palace and an urgent plea to help the deathly ill Queen Victoria herself (Jessie Buckley).

As suspicions arise about Royal Dr. Mudfly (Michael Sheen) and the true nature of the Queen’s ills, Dolittle and friends (some human, most not) set sail on a grand adventure to acquire the cure from King Rassouli (Antonio Banderas), who just happens to be the father of Dolittle’s dear departed Lily (Kasia Smutniak).

Plus, there’s a big dragon.

Director/co-writer Stephen Gaghan (Syriana) re-sets the backstory with an animated fairy tale, then ups the ante on action while letting Downey, Jr. and a menagerie of star voices try to squeeze out all the fun they can.

From Emma Thompson to John Cena, Octavia Spencer to Rami Malek, Tom Holland, Ralph Fiennes and Kumail Nanjiani to Selena Gomez and more, the CGI zoo juggles personalities, while Downey curiously chooses a whispered, husky delivery that sometimes makes his Do a little hard to understand.

But, of course, he still manages to craft an engaging character, even centering the Dr. with a grief just authentic enough for adults without bringing down the childlike wonder.

This is a Dr. Dolittle set on family adventure mode, with plenty of talking animal fun for the little ones and a few clever winks and nudges for the parents. But as the start of a possible franchise, it’s more of a handshake than a high-five. It may not leave you with belly laughs or tunes stuck in your head, but it’s eager to please manner doesn’t hurt a bit.

The Greatest Escape

Papillon

by George Wolf

Don’t expect wholesale changes to the classic survival tale from 1973. Instead, Danish director Michael Noer makes a subtle shift in tone, moving the focus away from the physical, and more toward the mental, philosophical and spiritual toll levied by years in a brutal penal colony.

Like the Steve McQueen/Dustin Hoffman original, this new Papillon is based on Henri Charriere’s book detailing his ordeal in a French Guyana prison camp, a sentence that began in the 1930s. Though the questionable authenticity of many of the book’s details earned it a “biographical novel” classification, Henri’s tale of primal struggle still commands attention.

As Henri (nicknamed “Papillon” after his butterfly tattoo), Charlie Hunnam finds McQueen’s big shoes a surprisingly comfortable fit. Showing more commitment than he has to date, Hunnam turns in a fierce performance that caters to Noer’s vision of an outside/in character arc.

Rami Malek is even better as the soft-spoken Louis, a wealthy counterfeiter who leans on the bruising Henri to provide safe haven from the savagery of other inmates. Keeping the basics of Hoffman’s characterization, Malek adds his own shading for a compelling take on a man drawn to his friend for the defiant commitment lacking within himself.

Noer sets a compelling contrast between two worlds, both visually impressive. The prison interiors are draped in blood, sweat and dark despair, while the colorful, expansive vistas just outside taunt the inmates with constant reminders of a freedom they are not likely to taste again.

The parts are all here and competently assembled, but the punch of the bigger themes Noer and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski (Prisoners, Contraband) are aiming for never land flush. The ordeal is tense, brutal and sometimes pulse-pounding, but this new Papillon can’t fully expose the nerve it was digging for.

Beyond physical toughness, what was it that drove Henri to merely bend where other men were breaking?

We get some fine glimpses, but none with depth enough to truly transcend the journey.

 





The Duality of Man

Buster’s Mal Heart

by Cat McAlpine

“Life’s a riddle” croons the opening song of Buster’s Mal Heart. Hoo boy, it sure is.

At the start, two shadowy figures sit in a small row boat on the open sea. Despite being the first image of writer/director Sarah Adina Smith’s existential delight, this scene is one of the final pieces of the puzzle she creates.

Looking back, the plot is simple, in its bizarre sci-fi short story kind of way. But the resulting film is not simple. The order of events has been jumbled and small interactions are dragged out only to be pumped full of paranoia.

Each moment of Smith’s film is tense, uncomfortable and absolutely lovely. The soundtrack is a character all its own, often transitioning between different covers of the same song as scenes change from one reality to the other. The camera constantly finds an interplay of light and dark, whether bare trees against a winter sky or a glowing TV in a dimly lit office.

Buster’s Mal Heart contemplates the claustrophobia of working a dead-end job inside the machine of modern society, and Rami Malek (Mr. Robot) is the perfect canvas. You can see the quiet rage within him long before he lets it slip. He plays both cautious and wildly consumed by conspiracy with equal commitments. I would’ve watched him sit at his dingy concierge desk for the whole hour and a half.

DJ Qualls (The Man in the High Castle) is not to go unmentioned either, as The Last Free Man. He delivers wild cosmic theories with enough sanity to make them sound almost plausible. And in Buster’s Mal Heart, almost plausible makes the leap to utterly real without breaking a sweat.

This film begs to be consumed as a whole, a new rarity in our distracted age. There is no moment for you to sneak out for a bathroom break or check your texts. Even shots of Buster simply vacuuming the dining room somehow feel important and are key to mood that Smith has crafted.

Imagine the universe. It is impossibly large. Infinitely large. We exist within the universe, and yet have only theories of how it works. Allow yourself to panic at this idea, to become uncomfortable. Allow your own smallness to make your heart race and your brain stutter. Think about the things you do, every day, that have no consequence at all on existence at large.

Now, before you sprint headlong into the woods, go see this movie.

Verdict-4-5-Stars