REVIEW: “No Time to Die” (2021)

What a ride it has been for Daniel Craig. He first slid into the tuxedo of the dapper 007 back in 2006. Fifteen years and five movies later Craig wraps up his terrific run with the 25th installment in the James Bond franchise, “No Time to Die”. Due to several reasons (a global pandemic chief among them), we haven’t had a Bond film since 2015. That’s a long time, but I’m happy to say it was well worth the wait.

I was pretty lukewarm on James Bond movies until Craig came along. His first entry “Casino Royale” blew me away. I like his second film, the flawed “Quantum of Solace” more than most. I loved his third movie “Skyfall” but was more mixed on his fourth, “Spectre”. With “No Time to Die”, Craig is given the chance to end his tenure on a sky-high note. And boy does he.

Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, “No Time to Die” comes packaged with everything you want from a Bond movie – big action, even bigger characters, plenty of style, and a special dash of heart. But Craig’s movies have added grit to that list. His Bond carries the weight of loss, and his pain often pushes him outside the bounds of agency protocol. That emotional burden and his willingness to cross the line are traits that set his 007 apart from all the rest.

Image Courtesy of United Artists Releasing

This near $300 million sequel comes with a collection of old familiar faces as well as a few new ones. And once again this latest world-saving mission takes Bond (and us) to locations across the globe – Italy, Jamaica, Cuba, Norway, and of course London. And then you have the story itself which is not only thrilling blockbuster material, but it nails the tricky task of completing Daniel Craig‘s story arc. And it does it in an profoundly satisfying way.

The film begins with James having retired from MI6 and enjoying what resembles a normal life with Madeleine (a returning Léa Seydoux). But while on a romantic getaway in the exquisitely shot Matera, Italy, the couple are reminded why they’re always looking over their shoulders. Assassins sent by the nefarious crime syndicate Spectre ambush James leading to an exhilarating action sequence through the heart of the scenic city. Bond and Madeleine manage to escape, but he suspects her of betraying and the two split up.

Five years and one Billie Eilish Bond theme later, James is living in seclusion on a beach in Jamaica when he’s contacted by old friend and CIA field officer Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright). Felix needs Bond’s help tracking down a kidnapped scientist (David Dencik) who has developed a DNA-targeting bioweapon known as “Project Heracles”. Obviously, in the wrong hands the bioweapon could be catastrophic. And those hands happen to belong to Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek), a soft-spoken yet vengeful terrorist leader who has an axe to grind with Spectre and has a rather gnarly connection to Madeleine’s past. And just like that, Bond is back in the game.

From there the road gets curvier. Bond butts heads with MI6, particularly M (Ralph Fiennes) and a brash young 00 agent named Nomi (Lashana Lynch). The devilish Ernst Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) is still running Spectre from prison. And of course Madeleine resurfaces, now working as a psychotherapist for MI6, a job that puts her right in the crosshairs of the string-pulling madman Safin. And there are even more characters with parts to play including CIA agent Paloma (a wide-eyed and delightful Ana de Armas) who assists Bond in Cuba. And of course Q (Ben Whishaw) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) make welcomed returns.

But this is very much Bond’s movie. Not just in the traditional sense, but personally and emotionally. From its action-packed earliest frames, “No Time to Die” has a different pull than Craig’s other films in the franchise. Part of it may be psychological. We know this is Craig’s last ride and that realization inevitably adds some extra feeling for fans. But it’s also a conscious move from Fukunaga who manages to keep his film tonally in-tune with the others while putting a warm and empathetic spotlight on the weary and pained super spy. It’s a slippery balancing act, but Fukunaga nails it.

Image Courtesy of United Artists Releasing

Also, the movie looks amazing. Whether he’s capturing a location or shooting an elaborate action sequence, Oscar-winning DP Linus Sandgren always gives us something worth looking at. I mentioned the stunning opening in Italy. There’s also an impeccably shot edge-of-your-seat car chase/shootout in Norway. And of course, the big finish which features one particularly jaw-dropping close-quartered gunfight up a flight of stairs. Sandgren is constantly treating us to one breathtaking shot after another and frequently reminding us of why movies are always better on the big screen.

But what may be most impressive is how the movie flies by despite a hefty running time of 2 hours 43 minutes. I only checked my watch once and that was out of curiosity rather than boredom. Much of it has to do with Fukunaga’s crisp pacing and steady mix of drama and action. He never lets things get bogged down. At the same time, he never loses sight of his characters. Again, it’s a balance the film maintains that keeps it lively and engaging.

So how does “No Time to Die” match up with Craig’s other Bond movies. Well, I’m not ready to put it next to the superb “Casino Royale”, but it’s only a step or two below it. Not only has Cary Joji Fukunaga made a good Bond movie, but this is the kind entertainment I look for out of blockbusters. But perhaps most important for 007 fans, Fukunaga gives Craig a swan song that does him and his fifteen years spent On Her Majesty’s Secret Service justice. It’s a top-to-bottom fabulous finish for (dare I even say it) my favorite Bond of the franchise. “No Time to Die” opens today in theaters.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “No Man of God” (2021)

There is no shortage of feature films and documentaries about the notorious serial killer Theodore “Ted” Bundy. The handsome and charismatic Bundy would eventually confess to kidnapping, raping and murdering thirty women across seven states through the mid-to-late 1970’s (the actual victim count is estimated to be higher). Hollywood’s interest in Bundy’s killings remains to this day.

There has long been an unsettling mystique surrounding Ted Bundy and when making movies about him filmmakers are forced to walk a tightrope out of fear of iconizing the twisted sociopath. Director Amber Sealey takes that challenge to heart in her new film “No Man of God”.

Working from a script by Kit Lesser, Sealey dodges the usual trappings by not concentrating on the killings themselves. Instead she puts her laser-sharp focus on Bundy’s last four years. More specifically, Sealey examines Bundy through the eyes of bright-eyed FBI agent Bill Hagmaier. Her film is inspired by authentic FBI transcripts and tape recordings of Hagmaier’s interviews with Bundy leading up to his execution in 1989.

Image Courtesy of RLJE Films

The film’s eerie opening flashes back to the morning of January 24, 1989 as Bryant Gumbel gives his Today Show audience the news that Ted Buddy had died in the electric chair after ten years of appeals. It’s followed by a collage of images that pulls us into the film’s 1980s setting. It won’t be the only time Sealey uses flashes of from the past to great effect.

From there Sealey sits us down in 1985 where the FBI’s newly-founded Behavior Analysis Unit (BAU) assigns Bill Hagmaier, the youngest member of their five-person team, to the Ted Bundy case. Hagmaier (played by a perfectly calibrated Elijah Woods) is tasked with winning an audience with the shrewd and savvy Bundy (Luke Kirby) who sits on death row at the Florida State Prison.

The psychological motivations are some of the most intriguing elements to the story. The Bureau believes that getting into Bundy‘s head and understanding his pathology will give them an edge in apprehending other serial killers. They also hope to root out any confessions that could finally give hurting families some much-needed closure. But getting the killer to open up wouldn’t be easy. “He won’t talk to you,” laughs the prison warden. “He hates the feds.”

But Bundy surprises everyone and agrees to meet with Bill, certain he can outwit the young profiler and unearth the Bureau’s real intentions. He also has his own personal reasons. With his execution date getting closer, the crafty and confident killer needs a reprieve and he’s running out of cards to play. So maybe appearing to “help” the government can buy him some time.

And that sets up the bulk of this true-crime two-hander that follows the pair of men as they meet over the course of four years. We watch as their cat-and-mouse game yields to a mutual trust and eventually an uncomfortable camaraderie. Most of their scenes are just the two of them in a small prison room. But the magnetic script combined with Sealey’s terrific sense of pacing and trust in her actors leave us captivated and locked into every exchange.

Image Courtesy of RLJE Films

The film also benefits from its gripping female perspective that comes through via several gutsy and powerful choices. My favorite may be when the increasingly desperate Bundy grants an interview with Christian psychologist and anti-pornography crusader James Dobson (Christian Clemenson). As the two agenda-driven men prattle, Sealey’s camera hones in on a young woman standing in the background. The shot lingers on her, slowly pulling us closer. As she listens to the words of a monster her expression speaks volumes. She knows who he is. She knows what he has done. She knows it could have been her.

I can’t end the review without talking more about Kirby. He’s certainly not the first actor to portray Ted Bundy (there was Mark Harmon, Cary Elwes and Zac Efron to name a few). But none have captured Bundy’s sinister calm and unnerving vanity quite like Kirby. His performance is made all the more potent by his chilling physical likeness both in appearance and in mannerisms. It also comes through in the tone of his voice and in his handling of the dialogue. Meanwhile Sealey and cinematographer Karina Silva shoot him in a way that adds to the unease. It’s a remarkable portrayal that’s both illuminating and terrifying.

“No Man of God” may not offer much new to those who are already well-versed in Ted Bundy’s story. But the film’s focus on a particular point late in his life allows us a unique look at the smug calculated murderer, always driven by his own selfish lusts, coming face-to-face with his own mortality. And the story is just as much about Bill Hagmaier and what his encounter with Ted Bundy brought out in him. It’s these kinds of differences that make the movie stand out from all the other Bundy treatments. “No Man of God” is now showing in select theaters and on VOD.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “The Night House” (2021)

(Click here to read my full review from Friday’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

After taking in the trailers for the psychological horror film “The Night House” I was left with some rather obvious expectations: a haunted house story, a malevolent apparition, some spooky atmosphere, and (if we’re lucky) some genuine chills. What I didn’t expect to find was a meaningful character study nestled snugly within an entertaining genre film and anchored by one of my favorite performances of the year from Rebecca Hall.

Hall plays Beth, a school teacher in upstate New York who we first meet only days after her husband Owen inexplicably took his own life. The couple had been happily married for 14 years, but now Beth finds herself abandoned, haunted by a houseful of memories and a cryptic suicide note that leaves her with more questions than answers.

Image Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Beth’s well-meaning friends try to take her mind of things, but she mostly keeps to herself, alone with her grief, anger and perplexity, inside of the large double-decker lake house Owen built for her. But eerie disturbances in the night make Beth (and us) question whether she’s really alone. Maybe it’s just too much wine. Is it her frayed psyche playing tricks on her? Or has Owen returned from the grave?

“The Night House” is directed by David Bruckner who has shown himself to be a smart and savvy genre filmmaker. Here he takes some familiar tricks and uses them to great effect – a stereo suddenly blasting on its own, loud knocks on the door in the middle of the night, creepy silhouettes vanishing into the shadows. With the help of DP Elisha Christian’s crafty camerawork and Ben Lovett’s uneasy score, Bruckner amps up the dread each evening when Beth falls asleep.

While Bruckner and company clearly have a good time making us squirm, the movie works well because it never strays from its chief focus – Beth’s state of mind. The script (co-written by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski) fills us in on a her past struggles with depression and “dark thoughts” and how it was Owen “who kept them at bay.”

Image Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Collins and Piotrowski do a good job keeping things under wraps while leaving a clue-filled trail of breadcrumbs (along with a few diversions) for our minds to follow. At the same time, Bruckner makes superb use of his location to feed our apprehension. The opening shots tease something idyllic, but any notion of tranquility quickly evaporates, overtaken by feelings of isolation and despair which Bruckner squeezes out of his picturesque setting.

“The Night House” is an immensely satisfying horror thriller that fully embraces its genre elements while also shrewdly dealing with some heavy topics such as mortality, depression, grief, and suicide. A few of the story’s details can get a little muddy in the final act and the ending may be a little too tidy. But the deeper the filmmakers go into the main character’s crumbling psychology the more I appreciated what they were going for. And any opportunity to see Rebecca Hall take on a meaty role like this is a treat in and of itself.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “No Sudden Move” (2021)

Steven Soderbergh’s latest, the straight to HBO Max thriller “No Sudden Move”, sees the filmmaker once again doing his thing and carving his own eclectic path. This stylish crime noir sports a star-studded cast who all effortlessly fit and flow with Soderbergh’s cool and intoxicating rhythm. Honestly it’s hard to watch and not notice his fingerprints all over this thing. Of course it could be because Soderbergh not only directs but also shoots and edits the film himself. The result is something fun and unmistakably his. And to think just a few years ago he was announcing his retirement.

While watching “No Sudden Move” I instantly began thinking of the terrific and underrated “Devil in a Blue Dress”, one of my favorite Denzel Washington films. This movie puts off a lot of those same vibes with Soderbergh once again embracing his long-held love for shady characters in tough spots. Set amid the racial boil of 1954 Detroit, “No Sudden Move” captures both the idyllic facade and corrupt reality of that period. Soderbergh and screenwriter Ed Solomon immerse us in a time where black neighborhoods were being squeezed out in the name of “urban renewal” and ruthless auto companies would use any means necessary to get ahead of their competition.

Image Courtesy of Warner Brothers

It’s this simmering and shifting setting that Soderbergh and Solomon sit us down in. They fill it with low-level hoods, shifty middlemen, menacing gang leaders, and corporate shysters, all basking in the technicolor(ish) glow of amorality and self-interest. At the center is Curt Goynes (played with understated precision by a terrific Don Cheadle), an ex-con who has managed to tick off every crime boss he has worked for. Fresh out of prison and in need of money, he takes a job from a shifty fedora-wearing Brendan Fraser who works on behalf of a mysterious unknown party. It’s should be easy and good-paying work – $5000 with $3K up front for only three hours of work. No killing, no beat-downs, just “babysitting”. What could go wrong?

Curt is teamed with the antsy and ever-suspicious Ronald Russo (Benicio del Toro) and the feisty take-charge Charley (Kieran Culkin). The job calls for them to break into the home of an accountant named Matt Wertz (played by a delightfully skittish David Harbour). Curt and Ron are tasked with staying at the home and keeping an eye on Matt’s family while Charley takes Matt to his firm to retrieve some secret documents from his boss’ safe. But as you might suspect, nothing in this story goes smoothly. The documents are missing. Someone is shot and killed. And soon miscreants galore are crawling out of the city’s underbelly with vested interests in this seemingly simple score.

Curt and Ron form a brittle alliance once they realize they’ve been set up, but the allure of more money keeps them from skipping town. If these documents have this many people’s interest surely they’re worth a lot of money. And if the unlikely duo can get their hands on the documents they can sell them to this highest bidder. Considering the heat from the underworld and the corporate world, it’s probably not the smartest play. So it’s no surprise when they find themselves at odds with some of the bigger fish in the pond, namely gangsters Frank Capelli (the stern and menacing Ray Liotta) and Aldrick Watkins (the quietly charismatic Bill Duke).

Image Courtesy of Warner Brothers

Solomon’s script fully embraces the concept of dishonor among thieves. His story overflows with back-stabs, double-crosses, and an array of criminal hoodwinks. Soderbergh has a blast with it, giving the characters room to walk their own paths and dig their own holes. Visually he shoots from a wonderful assortment of perspectives and mostly through wide-angle lenses. When combined with the gorgeous lighting, the film looks both stylishly modern and like something plucked from a bygone era of filmmaking. Mix in the snazzy score from David Holmes and it’s hard not to feel like you’ve stepped into a time machine.

Will the performances are great throughout (especially from Cheadle who blew me away), a few characters are wafer-thin and scream for more attention. Jon Hamm plays a police detective who pops up here and there but with little impact (although he does appear in the two funniest scenes). Also Julia Fox (“Uncut Gems”) ends up with a pretty significant role to play but is barely visible through most of the movie. Still, it’s great to see so many quality talents filling out Soderbergh’s world and operating on his unique wavelength. It’s part of what makes all of his films (even his misfires) so fascinating to watch. “No Sudden Move” is now streaming on HBO Max.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “New Order” (2021)

Certain to be dismissed by many on all sides of the class warfare/income inequality discussion, “New Order” is a movie that doesn’t blindly take sides and doesn’t let anyone off the hook. The film plays like a “what if” story warning the audience of what could happen rather than championing a specific point-of-view. Mexican director Michel Franco dares to critique societal breakdowns as they’re actually occurring across our present-day world which likely won’t sit well will those who are deeply committed to certain movements or social statuses.

This nasty and confrontational coup d’etat horror film paints a bleak and hopeless picture of our future society if we don’t start facing certain realities. In Franco’s movie no one benefits and no one wins. There are no heroes riding in on white horses to save the day. Once everything begins to fall apart it only gets darker and harder to watch. Franco pulls no punches, subjecting his audience to all kinds of stomach-churning horror yet creating the kind of tension that’s hard to turn away from.

Image Courtesy of NEON

“New Order” is a portrait of human depravity and the many wickedly oppressive forms it takes. It ends in a much different place than where it begins. Franco (who also wrote screenplay) starts his story at a posh upper-class wedding party in a wealthy Mexico City neighborhood. For nearly twenty minutes Franco’s camera moves around the party, setting the scene visually rather than spelling it out. By simple observation we meet numerous party-goers stylishly dressed and fully immersed in their privilege. Guests greet and exchange pleasantries as the mostly indigenous workers park cars and prepare the food.

The bride Marianne (an exceptional Naian González Norvind) is the closest we come to a lead character. Like everyone else at the party she comes from a family of wealth and is blissfully in love with her architect fiance Alan (Darío Yazbek Bernal). And just like everyone else at the party she seems completely impervious to what’s happening outside of their high society walls. But we see what differentiates Marianne from her family when a former employee named Rolando (Eligio Meléndez) comes by in desperate need of money for his wife’s heart valve replacement surgery. Mariannne’s parents and older brother Daniel (Diego Boneta) give him a little cash and then coldly brush him off. A frustrated Marianne presses her folks and her fiance but all she gets in return is “It’s your wedding day. Enjoy yourself.

Meanwhile only blocks away, the city is crumbling as protests over economic disparity are overtaken by angry mobs mostly driven by the influence of violent revolutionaries. I won’t spoil what happens, but the first of many shocking moments comes when armed members of the mob invade the wedding party. As looting and murder spreads, the revolutionaries begin taking prisoners from the wealthy districts and holding them for ransom. Meanwhile the military seizes their opportunity and uses the violent uprising to impose their own fascist order.

Needless to say the movie has numerous moving parts and mining Franco’s overall meaning can be difficult at first. “New Order” is an angry film but its ire isn’t aimed in any one single direction. Instead its goal is to viscerally explore the utter collapse of a society and the many elements that contribute to it. The film delves into the ugly side of human nature, exhibiting what happens when morality gives way to anger, rage, greed, or indifference. In Franco’s scenario no one is exonerated, whether it’s the impoverished lower-class who turn from protests to violence or the privileged wealthy who dismiss the plight of the poor with ease. We do get small glimmers of compassion from each side – Marianne from the 1%, Marta (Mónica Del Carmen) and her son Cristian (Fernando Cuautle) from the other. But you never get a sense that their kindness will be rewarded.

Image Courtesy of NEON

The sheer brutality of “New Order” is effective yet hard to watch. Torture, rape, mass executions – its all vividly portrayed. Even when Franco turns his camera rather than subject us to the savagery, the implications are still carved into our minds. And then there are instances where he simply goes too far, portraying horrifying cruelty that’s sure to have some of his audience checking out. Yet through it all there are clear signs of brilliant filmmaking, especially in Franco’s ability to develop and maintain an unsettling tension, often through the camera work of DP Yves Cape. I was glued to every frame despite being frustrated by some of the excesses.

I’m betting there are deeper meanings buried within “New Order” that Mexican audiences will pick up but that I missed. It’s that kind of movie – one that doesn’t allow for a single-minded reading and that’s open for a range of interpretations. If you can approach the film with an open mind (and a strong stomach), you’ll find a movie willing to confront the way many people think about things today. That doesn’t let it off the hook for occasionally crossing the line of taste. But it does result in a thought-provoking nail-biter that covers some of the same subjects as the Oscar-winning “Parasite” but from a much angrier and more cynical point-of-view. “New Order” is out now in select theaters.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Nobody” (2021)

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Hutch Mansell is a mild-mannered everyday average Joe. His days are an endless cycle of monotony – get up, catch the bus, go to work, come back home, go to bed. The only real highlights of his week are his morning cups of coffee and missing the trash truck every Tuesday. Even his family seems lulled by his ordinariness. But as the press notes for the upcoming film “Nobody” strategically warns, “Sometimes the man you don’t notice is the most dangerous of all.”

The aptly named “Nobody” is a gritty action thriller with a heavy dose of black comedy. It comes from director Ilya Naishuller and screenwriter Derek Kolstad who penned the three “John Wick” movies and is currently attached to the MCU streaming series “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier”. In “Nobody” Emmy winner Bob Odenkirk plays the aforementioned Hutch, an overlooked and altogether unremarkable fellow stuck in a rut. I’ll be honest, Odenkirk together with the the writer of the “John Wick” movies didn’t sound like the most convincing pairing. But the 58-year-old “Better Call Saul” star proved me wrong, especially in the film’s wacky and corpse-filled second half.

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Image Courtesy of Universal Studios

Hutch is someone you would barely even notice; a guy who would walk by and never catch your eye. Even at home his wife Becca (Connie Nielsen) seems to have lost interest in him. Then you have his teen son Blake (Gage Munroe) who looks at his humdrum father with indifference and poorly-hidden shame. The only warmth Hutch feels is from the idolizing glow of his adorable young daughter Abby (Paisley Cadorath). When she looks at her daddy she sees safety and security. She sees her hero.

Things at home get worse after two robbers break into their suburban house in the middle of the night. Hutch passes on the chance to club the thug holding a gun on Blake leading to his son getting punched in the face and the robbers fleeing. This strains their relationship even more and pushes Hutch closer to the brink. But not in the Michael Douglas “Falling Down” sense. Hutch isn’t having a mental breakdown and he’s certainly not insane. He simply has a “dormant” side that’s suddenly itching to come out.

I won’t spoil things but let’s just say we are introduced to that “dormant” side during a ferocious bus sequence that should instantly be front-runner for fight scene of the year. And just like that we’re thrust into an underworld where titles like “the Barber” and “Auditor” are the norm. We’re introduced to the film’s antagonist, a Russian drug kingpin named Yulian Kuznetsov (Aleksei Serebryakov), “a connected and funded sociopath” and babysitter for the “Obschak”. In gangland terms he manages and guards the Russian mob’s 401(k). And of course he has a slew of disposable henchmen, all dressed in black and armed to the teeth.

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Image Courtesy of Universal Studios

If you’re thinking all of that sounds pretty familiar you wouldn’t be wrong. We’ve seen variations of this story before. But several things make “Nobody” stand out. Tops on the list is Odenkirk who nails every shift and turn in his character (and there are several of them). He’s convincingly physical, funny, and even feral when things intensify. The movie also shows off a deliciously wicked and frankly wacky sense of humor. Whether it’s a perfectly timed line of dialogue, the hysterically over-the-top nature of some of the action, or the hilariously on-the-nose music choices from Louis Armstrong, Andy Williams, and the like. And then you have the great supporting cast. Connie Nielsen is always good so it’s no surprise she is here too. We also get a small but wildly entertaining role for Christopher Lloyd playing Hutch’s elderly father Harry. There’s even Michael Ironside, a face (and great voice) that I haven’t seen around in a while.

As “Nobody” propels forward the violence gets crazier and the body count mounts. Yet the movie never loses its self-awareness. Naishuller has a field day playing around with action genre norms and together with DP Pawel Pogorzelski puts together a number of thrilling sequences that are stylish and visually coherent (an often underestimated plus). And while it certainly has it’s fun, there is a nastiness to “Nobody” that might catch some folks off-guard. But that’s another part of what makes it such a rip-roaring ride. “Nobody” opens in theaters March 26th.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars