Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Reel Facts & Opinions: The Next James Bond



Every ten years or so, the question of who will be the next James Bond comes up; a question that arises whenever the current actor either steps down, gets too old, or is simply handed a pink slip. The current holder of Agent 007 has been Daniel Craig, and speculation and uncertainty of his continuing involvement has been going on for a solid two years, owed to no official announcement from Craig or MGM.

All that endless speculation and constant “will he or won’t he” articles may have finally come to an end this week, when Craig announced to the world during his appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert that he would indeed, for one last time, be returning as Bond. This would make his next appearance his fifth as 007, which is the third-most, behind Sean Connery and Roger Moore (seven appearances).


The announcement counters Craig’s statements from two years ago, when he frequently commented on how difficult it was to film a James Bond movie due to the physical requirements (Craig will be 50 years old by the time he would begin filming). In a current Hollywood where younger is always getting most of the attention, and roles for men (and women) over 50 can be hard to come by, keeping Bond as an older gentleman, which is how the character has always been accepted, is a good thing. Since taking over the role from Pierce Brosnan in 2006, Craig has played the part with a nice balance of British gentleman and hardened killer; two important traits for a spy in the employ of her Majesty’s Secret Service.

But Craig’s tenure as James Bond has seen its ups and downs. After a spectacular debut with the most-excellent CASINO ROYALE in 2006, things got weird with the bizarre QUANTUM OF SOLACE in 2008. In 2012 his Bond may have peaked with the Oscar-nominated SKYFALL, only to hit bottom again with the troubled SPECTRE in 2015. It almost seems like the odd-numbered Bond films in Craig’s era are the good ones, which means his fifth has hope.

The films that struggled had little to do with Craig and his performance, but with ridiculous scripts and confused tone; SPECTRE for instance couldn’t decide if it wanted to embrace the camp of the Moore era or keep it real-world. While this Blogger has loved Craig in the role, it does seem like a fresh start is due. Where to go next? Here’s an idea…


The image on the left is Bond-creator Ian Fleming’s original sketch for James Bond, and the image on the right is this Blogger’s choice for the next 007, Michael Fassbender. The resemblance is amazing. And this Blogger also proposes that a new Bond series should be set in the 1960’s. That would give the series a unique identity, and also give the filmmakers the freedom to have fun with gadgets again (Bond gadgets aren’t that impressive in this modern, technology-dominated age).

But until then, let’s hope Daniel Craig is given a worthy sendoff before hanging up his tux.

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The 25th Bond film is slated for a November 2019 release.



Monday, August 14, 2017

A Reel Review: WIND RIVER



Two of the best screenplays in the last couple of years have been penned by Taylor Sheridan; beginning with SICARIO in 2015, and the Oscar-nominated HELL OR HIGH WATER in 2016. Both stories were a variation of cops and robbers which spent a lot of time with characters living on both sides of the law. For WIND RIVER, Sheridan writes and directs, and takes his craft to a new level.

Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), is a hunter for the US Fish and Wildlife Service who discovers a body in the rugged and snowy wilderness of an Indian Reservation. He teams up with rookie FBI Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) to solve the mystery.

To say more of the plot would be an act of villainy, as WIND RIVER offers a fair amount of twists and turns along with some surprising connections the characters have to the dead woman found far out in an isolated area of wilderness. As with his previous works, Sheridan keeps his plotting simple; find the bad guy(s) who did the deed. But what makes it work is the amount of time spent with the characters, who actually become more interesting than the plot itself. Lambert has a tragic backstory going on, and his team-up with Banner, who has no idea what to expect in the harsh terrain she finds herself in, offers some great character work.

Familiar elements are present throughout; a seasoned hunter who knows the art of tracking and hunting forming an uneasy alliance with a new “cop” who shows up without as much as a parka or boots to get through feet of snow in bone-chilling weather. Sheridan knows he’s working with familiar tropes, and he manages to avoid any clichés. Lambert and Banner never become an old buddy-cop TV show and the overdone fish-out-of-water routine is smartly underplayed. Having the setting at an Indian reservation also thickens the atmosphere as Sheridan goes into seldom-explored territory; the hard lives and injustices that are still being done to Native Americans. There is an underbelly exposed here that makes WIND RIVER something new and special.

There is still a mystery to be solved in WIND RIVER, and Sheridan keeps us guessing through some clever twists, a brilliant flashback, and a commitment to the good old-fashioned whodunit. There is a subtle (and not-so subtle) theme of predators at work here, and it adds another layer to the film. Pacing and editing are excellent with a few horrific fire-fights, and the snowy terrain is photographed in a way that we can practically feel the chilly air coming off the screen, not to mention the grand scale of the wilderness and territory; making the task of solving the murder seemingly impossible. And despite the snow and the cold, the film has the feeling of a classic Old West story. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis provide a haunting score.

The entire cast are excellent in their roles. Jeremy Renner may be playing an everyday straight-man, but his character’s tragic backstory and connection to the dead girl gives him a lot to work with. His character is carrying a heavy burden, and Renner lets us see it. His chemistry with Elizabeth Olsen is excellent and feels natural; a quiet scene where he spills his guts to her is riveting. Olsen herself goes through a lot and sells it. The rest of the cast, including Graham Green, Jon Bernthal, and most especially Gil Birmingham…as the father of the dead girl, are outstanding.

The finale goes into some dark and disturbing places before settling in on an emotional wallop, and an unexpected epilogue that follows makes WIND RIVER something to think about long after the credits end. Taylor Sheridan has now penned a great screenplay for the third year in a row, and his skill behind the camera has now made him a true force to be reckoned with. WIND RIVER is masterful.

BOTTOM LINE: See it




Thursday, August 10, 2017

A Reel Review: DETROIT



In 1967 Detroit, a police raid on an unlicensed drinking hole sparked a racially charged riot which lasted five days and escalated to the point where National Guard troops were called in to help stop the damage. One of the more infamous events to happen during the looting occurred at the Algiers Motel, where two racist cops led a raid which led to the beatings and eventual death of three African-Americans. It was an ugly incident in an ugly time, and the subject matter for director Kathryn Bigelow’s DETROIT.

During the riots, a grocery store security guard (John Boyega) assists police and National Guardsmen as they respond to a shooting at the Algiers Motel.  Led by a racist cop (Will Poulter), the officers brutally interrogate the hotel guests, including a Vietnam War veteran (Anthony Mackie), a Motown singer and his manager (Algee Smith and Jacob Latimore), and two young white girls (Kaitlyn Dever and Hannah Murray).

DETROIT is a film which fully embraces the standard three-act structure; with the first act establishing the situation and moving all the vital characters towards the motel, the second dealing with the events at Algiers, and the third portraying the aftermath and court proceedings against the police officers who went way overboard. The early goings of the film (preceded by a brilliant animated prologue) spends all of its time establishing characters and moving them around, and there is a lot to take in and keep track of as director Kathryn Bigelow, working from a script by her long-time collaborator Mark Boal, sets us up for the terror to come.

That terror is hard to watch, as the cops literally crack skulls and blast innocents with shotguns…all in the name of “justice”. The actual events that happened that night to this day are still unclear, so Bigelow and Boal take their liberties and guesses, and DETROIT presents itself as very matter-of-factly…almost to a fault. There is a strict adherence to re-enacting the events, so much that it almost forgets to be a “movie” in a traditional sense. Bigelow has done this to great effect in the past, and here it mostly works, but the ugliness of the situation forces us to look for empathy, but it doesn’t quite get there. DETROIT comes off as 90% documentary and 10% narrative, and it isn’t quite the type of cinematic experience that is meant to be enjoyed. Despite the despicable actions of the police in the motel, Bigelow still manages to show both sides of the coin; dropping us right into the boots of street cops and Guardsmen as they were under fire from looters and snipers. 

Bigelow’s pacing, editing, and dark cinematography are excellent. The tension and dread that she builds up during the motel interrogations are sky-high. The scale of the riots are re-enacted in stunning visuals, and one has to wonder exactly how she pulled it off (movie magic still exists!). Excellent use of historical footage is seamlessly edited in (which adds to the documentary feeling). James Newton Howard’s score is very good, and the usage of pop songs from the era are well chosen and placed.

Acting is very good even if we don’t get to know our characters very well. John Boyega is good as always, and his character acts as an audience-surrogate so he gets a lot of screentime. Will Poulter really dominates the film as the true villain of it all. His berating and de-humanizing of every African American he sees (along with white people who associate with them) is revolting, and he makes it believable. Kaitlyn Dever and Hannah Murray also get a lot to do as the only two white girls in the hotel, Anthony Mackie is solid as always, Algee Smith gets to stretch his wonderful singing pipes, and John Krasinski pops in later on as a defense lawyer for the cops.

The third act of the film gets into the criminal proceedings against the cops, and it serves as a very long, extended conclusion to the film. The outrageous (and perhaps inevitable) verdicts are enough to make anyone upset, and the message of DETROIT seems to be that not much has changed since 1967, and that this could easily happen again today. DETROIT is brutally honest, and despite being emotionally distant and unconventional, is a worthwhile look at a shameful event in history.

BOTTOM LINE: See it



Tuesday, August 8, 2017

A Reel 25: UNFORGIVEN


“It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he’s got, and all he’s ever gonna have.”


This month marks the 25th anniversary of Clint Eastwood’s UNFORGIVEN.

Directed by Eastwood and starring himself in the lead role, UNFORGIVEN told the tale of William Munny, an aging gunslinger and former outlaw who teams up with his best friend Ned and a young, wanna-be outlaw to pull one last job; the execution of a cowboy who sliced up a prostitute. It was a patient tale of redemption and lifelong affirmation; saturated in Old West film lore.

It was written by David Webb Peoples, who had penned the Oscar nominated THE DAY AFTER TRINITY (1980), and co-written the sci-fi cult-favorite BLADE RUNNER (1982). Peoples had been playing with the concept since the late 1970’s, and Eastwood actually passed on the project in the 1980’s.

When Eastwood did get around to UNFORGIVEN, he immediately cast himself in the lead role. As a veteran of the old Spaghetti Westerns which had made him famous, Eastwood easily slipped back into the saddle, and at 61 years old during the time of filming, was well equipped to inject some grumpy old-man with a burden into the character. The rest of the cast was ensemble of Hollywood heavyweights, including Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman, Richard Harris, and Frances Fisher. Jaimz Woolvett, in his early 20’s, would be cast as the young gunslinger looking to make a name for himself.

UNFORGIVEN was a critical and box office hit. It opened at number one in the first week of August of 1992, and at the time was the best opening for an Eastwood film. After its success in Awards Season, it would return to the Top 10 eight months after its initial release, and would stay in theatres for nearly a full year.

And during that Awards Season, UNFORGIVEN was destined to ride off with gold. It would be nominated for nine Oscars, winning four; Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor for Gene Hackman, Best Director for Eastwood, and Best Film Editing for Joel Cox. Gene Hackman would also win a BAFTA and a Golden Globe for Supporting Actor, and Eastwood would also win a Globe for directing. It was added to the National Film Registry in 2004, and in 2008, the American Film Institute (AFI) would list UNFORGIVEN as the 4th best film in the American Western genre.

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This Blogger’s first awareness of UNFORGIVEN came a few months before the film was released. That first, memorable trailer for the film, which featured a bloodied and beaten Richard Harris standing at the back of a stagecoach yelling, “bloody savages”, immediately grabbed this Blogger’s attention. It was a harsh and brutally honest film, and even the title carried a Biblical weight. Today, UNFORGIVEN stands tall as one of the finest films the Old West genre has ever had to offer. It’s themes of old age, youth, philosophies on life and death, and the final mystery of William Munny, left for the audience to ponder, made it an experience to be discussed for decades to come. Eastwood crafted UNFORGIVEN as a loving tribute to the Old West and the mentors who guided him as a cinematic gunslinger as far back as the 1960’s. He has said that UNFORGIVEN would be his final ride into the genre, and when the man finally crosses the horizon into the sunset, he will be remembered for crafting one of, if not the best Western of all time.

“Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.”




Friday, August 4, 2017

A Reel Review: THE DARK TOWER



Over the last 40 years, the film adaptations of the works of famed author Stephen King have been all over the scale in terms of quality. A few of them are considered cinematic greatness, others as cult favorites, and a bushel-basket of them are considered utter dreck. King’s multi-volume series THE DARK TOWER, a fantasy story with rich, layered mythology, was an ambitious effort in literature, seemingly requiring an ambitious filmmaker to bring it to the right end of that scale.

Jake (Tom Taylor), is a young teen living in NYC with his mother and stepdad, who is having bad dreams/visions about an evil Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey) who abducts gifted children with a “shine” (6th sense), to use their powers to destroy The Dark Tower which sits at the center of time and space, protecting various worlds from demons. Jake travels to one of those other worlds, where he encounters Roland (Idris Elba), a lone gunslinger on a personal mission to stop the Man in Black.

THE DARK TOWER’s source material encompasses eight novels, and is widely regarded as King’s best work with its world and universe-building mythology. Seemingly aware of the massive undertaking, director Nikolaj Arcel and his team of four (!) screenwriters tackle the task by first deciding to make the film both a loose re-telling and a sequel to the novels, showing events that take place after the books’ cyclical ending. While this gives Arcel a lot of freedom to make an accessible film for the masses, he winds up making it too accessible. The plot and characters are paper-thin, with their dialogue serving only as explanations to set up another scene, and every major element doesn’t get past every old cliché in the book; angry stepfather, check. Kid who is the chosen-one, check. Vengeful gunslinger, check. Bad guy who kills his own henchman, check. It makes for a bland and generic experience and it doesn’t take long for THE DARK TOWER to fall into dull predictability.

It’s bare-bones filmmaking with characters just jumping from one setpiece to another with barely enough time to converse. The film has a rushed feel to it, as no one is given time to breath or develop. It overall feels like they filmed the first draft of the script, only hitting the major plot points and then quickly moving on to the next. There’s no metaphors or deeper meaning going on at all. The film also feels confused as to who the main character should be. Jake gets most of the screentime with Roland busted down to a babysitter and sidekick, and yet Roland’s mission in life makes it seem like the story should be about him.

There are some impressive works going on with the visuals. The practical sets, ranging from an abandoned amusement park to the Man in Black’s techno-driven hideaway, have a spooky lushness to them. The henchmen have sagging skin, evidently hiding something underneath in a creepy effect that works, but we disappointingly never get to see what’s underneath. The movie is packed with references to King’s other works; some are subtle, while other are presented with the grace of a broken jackhammer. Pacing is way too fast and the editor seems like they had to go to the bathroom while cutting. Tom Holkenborg’s score is generic but works in some places.

Acting is a snore. Young Tom Taylor seems to be stuck on one face, and Idris Elba, while he looks cool slinging his guns, plays the character as too much of a grump and never generates any sympathy. Matthew McConaughey is too one-note to make any sort of impression, and his various magic powers make no sense. Fran Kranz shows up as the head of the Man in Black’s IT department in a useless extended cameo. Jackie Earle Hayley and Dennis Haysbert are also underused.

The finale consists of a CGI fireworks show where the stakes never seem that high, and the resolution comes very abruptly and everything is over before we even realize we’re in the final fight. At just 95 minutes, THE DARK TOWER feels like a truncated version even to someone unfamiliar with the books, and the hyper-speed the plotting works at just makes it generic and bland. That old scale gets a mighty lean towards the dreck-side thanks to this dark turkey.

BOTTOM LINE: Fuck it




Wednesday, August 2, 2017

A Reel Preview: The Year in Film 2017 - Episode VIII



August may arrive in the Summer, but in the movie universe it often serves as a minor dumping ground, where films deemed not-quite-good-enough for the peak of the season and not-quite-ready for Oscar season are sent to be quiet. Here are the notable releases for this August, the final month of the 2017 Summer Movie Season.

It all gets dark with…

THE DARK TOWER – The long-awaited (and dreaded) adaptation of Stephen King’s series of sci-fi novels. This film adaptation serves as a pseudo-sequel to the books, taking elements from each novel. Idris Elba (THOR), plays the mysterious gunslinger on a quest to protect the Dark Tower. Co-stars Matthew McConaughey, Tom Chambers, Dennis Haysbert, and Jackie Earle Haley.

DETROIT – Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow (ZERO DARK THIRTY, THE HURT LOCKER) brings the true story of the 1967 Detroit riots to the big screen. Stars Will Poulter, Anthony Mackie, John Krasinski,  and John Boyega (THE FORCE AWAKENS).

WIND RIVER – AVENGERS co-stars Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen star in this crime thriller. It is written and directed by Taylor Sheridan, who wrote the outstanding films HELL OR HIGH WATER in 2016 and SICARIO in 2015.

ANNABELLE: CREATION – This horror film about a deadly doll is a prequel to the 2014 ANNABELLE, which was a spinoff of THE CONJURING series (everybody got that?).

THE GLASS CASTLE – Based on the 2005 novel/memoir of the same name, which recalled the author’s poverty-stricken upbringing and dysfunctional parents. Stars Woody Harrelson, Brie Larson, and Naomi Watts.

INGRID GOES WEST – In this comedy-drama, a young woman is obsessed with an internet celebrity. Stars Elizabeth Olsen, Aubrey Plaza, and Pom Klementieff (GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2).

GOOD TIME – One of the best films to come out of the Cannes Film Festival this year is a crime drama involving two brothers. Stars Robert Pattinson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Barkhad Abdi (CAPTAIN PHILLIPS).

THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD – Ryan Reynolds (DEADPOOL), plays a bodyguard assigned to protect a hitman, played by Samuel L. Jackson. It is directed by Patrick Hughes, who brought us the giant piece-of-shit EXPENDABLES 3 in 2014.

LOGAN LUCKY – Maverick director Steven Soderbergh (OCEAN’S ELEVEN, TRAFFIC), helms this comedy-drama about three siblings, played by Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, and Riley Keough, who plan a heist during a NASCAR race. Co-stars Daniel Craig, Seth MacFarlane, Katie Holmes, Katherine Waterston, Dwight Yoakam, Sebastian Stan, and Hilary Swank.

TULIP FEVER – Based on the novel of the same name, this 17th century period piece has a young artist falling in love with a married woman. Stars Dane DeHaan (THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES), Alicia Vikander (EX MACHINA), Zach Galifianakis, Judi Dench, Cara Delevingne, and Christoph Waltz.

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Next month, Reel Speak previews the first month of Oscar Season.