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Bond & Movies for Spooky Season

Hope Madden Hope Madden Bond & Movies for Spooky SeasonNo Time to Die - Photo via IMDb
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It’s here. We’ve waited the whole damn pandemic for Daniel Craig’s final Bond film, and it finally arrives. Of course, for a lot of us, 007 marks a quick sidetrack from the main staple of October viewing — it is spooky season, after all. There’s plenty to choose from if you are celebrating. Here’s the low down:

No Time to Die

In theaters

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 into 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.

Grade: A-

Lamb

At Gateway Film Center

by Hope Madden

Among the many remarkable elements buoying the horror fable Lamb is filmmaker Valdimar Jóhannsson’s ability to tell a complete and riveting tale without a single word of exposition.

Not one. So, pay attention.

Rather than devoting dialog to explaining to us what it is we are seeing, Jóhannsson relies on impressive visual storytelling instincts, answering questions as they come up with a gravesite, a crib coming out of storage, a glance, a bleat.

His cast of three – well, four, I guess — sells the fairy tale. A childless couple working a sheep farm in Iceland find an unusual newborn lamb and take her in as their own child. As is always the way in old school fables, though, there is much magical happiness but a dire recompense soon to come.

Noomi Rapace is the stand-out, her character’s emotional arc from melancholy to longing to joy expressed physically as Maria goes about each day’s tasks. Hilmir Snær Guðnason’s tenderness as husband Ingvar offers a lovely balance while offering an intriguing change of pace for fairy tale archetypes.

Jóhannsson, making an astounding feature debut behind the camera, strikes a balance between reality and unreality, beginning with startlingly authentic farming scenes. He casts a spell with the ruggedly gorgeous scenery, the unending but mastered workload of the farm, and its isolation.

The rare dialog exchanges are meaningful but not obvious. When a brother shows up rather inauspiciously, conflict arrives with him, but even here the sly storytelling will keep you guessing while still giving you all you really need to know.

There is a cruelty in the justice meted out in old school fairy tales, and that element has generally been softened for modern sensibilities. Ariel didn’t get the prince, she turned into sea foam while he married another. The gods of yore weren’t swayed by compassion or sentimentality.

That’s another line Jóhannsson and his stellar cast walk perfectly: we love and root for this family, even as we recognize the selfishness and unwholesomeness beneath their joy.

Lamb is an absolutely gorgeous, entirely unusual and expertly crafted gem of a film. You should see it.

Grade: A-

Detention

At Gateway Film Center

by Christie Robb

Dead Poet’s Society meets Pan’s Labyrinth in John Hsu’s Detention, based on a 2017 2-D video game.

Set in 1960s Taiwan, the state is under martial law. Reading communist and other left-leaning books is punished severely—in some cases by death. In the midst of this repression, two high school teachers start a secret book club that meets in a storeroom and introduces students to works of “subversive literature.” One of the students narcs on the group, unleashing government-sanctioned violence upon the school.

The story unfolds in several parts. “Nightmare” starts with two of the students waking up in the now-empty and somewhat dilapidated school building, unaware of how they got there and what happened before they went to sleep. The students are literally haunted by their own recent past. Some of the horror tropes are familiar: long, vertigo-inducing, ill-lit hallways, creepy girls with hair hanging in front of their eyes, fairly effective jump scare. This section seems to be most heavily influenced by the videogame source material. What is particularly effective here is a literal embodiment of the repressive state that menaces the corridors.

The section “The Whistleblower” shows the events that led to the outing of the book club. It takes an onion-peeling approach, showing the motivations and potential culpabilities of various participants, layer by layer. Awe-inspiring and sadly realistic how so much deplorable violence can result from the banal foibles of adolescents and their ever-so-slightly older teachers.

“The Ones Who Live” establishes the thesis of the work, that it’s important for those who live on to remember and admit to mistakes made in the past. As long as there are people living, there is hope.

Well-acted, with cinematography and sound design that keep us poised for scares, Detention does a wonderful job delivering a SpooOOooOOky season movie while also conveying a message about the price of freedom and liberty.

Grade: A-

Knocking

At Gateway Film Center

by Rachel Willis

It’s easy for horror films to pigeonhole the mentally ill into stereotypical terrors that disturb those who’ve never experienced mental illness (or known someone to suffer from it). You often find the “split personality” films where one of the personalities is a murderer, or with a paranoid schizophrenic who can’t tell reality from hallucination terrorizing friends and family.

But once in a while, a horror film reminds you there is a real person suffering – someone who is more than their label. And that’s when things get truly unsettling.

Working from a script by Emma Broström, director Frida Kempff captures the uncertainty and fear of a woman struggling to be believed in the Swedish film, Knocking.

Molly (Cecilia Milocco) suffered a mental breakdown following a traumatic event. After spending time in a mental health facility, she’s deemed capable of being on her own. Moving into a new apartment and advised to turn it into a home, Molly attempts just that.

But the nightly knocking on her ceiling keeps her from settling into her new life.

What follows is a fairly predictable conundrum – is Molly hallucinating or is the knocking—perhaps attempts at Morse Code and a cry for help—real?

This isn’t the sole focus of the film. Kempff isn’t just interested in letting us guess at Molly’s situation, she also digs into the quickness with which people dismiss her. Because of Molly’s often erratic behavior and her past, police, neighbors, and health care workers tend to disregard her fear.

Milocco nails her role. She convincingly sells the character’s firm belief yet utter confusion surrounding the knocking. She portrays a woman trying to cope yet infused with obsession. As Molly tries to solve the mystery behind the knocking, everyone in her building becomes suspect.

In a particularly captivating scene, we watch Molly confront a group of men who live on the floor above her – the floor from which the knocking persists. The men recognize and respond to Molly’s distress, but they’re not listening to her. Though raising an alarm that someone needs help, the men make their own conclusions based solely on Molly’s behavior. The scene would be flawless if not for some cliché and distracting camerawork.

When you’re mentally ill, everyone is quick to disbelieve you (extra skepticism if you’re a woman). In the film, this creates disturbing tension as the knocking reaches a pitch of intensity. It doesn’t really matter if the knocking is real; what matters is that Molly believes it – but nobody believes her. A truly terrifying concept.

Grade: B+

V/H/S/94

On Shudder

by George Wolf

You ready for scary?

1994 was almost 30 years ago. Three zero.

So the fourth film in the V/H/S series places the found footage premise in a decidedly nostalgic vibe, with plenty of videotape filter effects, “taped over” moments and no worries about smartphones crashing the internal logic.

Five filmmakers deliver separate short film visions, as four segments are bookended by an anchor meant to tie them all together as a narrative whole.

Jennifer Reeder handles the wraparound, entitled “Holy Hell,” which follows a SWAT team invading a compound while members shout about drugs and search warrants. They find much more than drugs in a frantic, satisfactory opening that suffers from some uneven production values and pedestrian acting.

Chloe Okuno’s “Storm Drain” finds an Ohio TV reporter and her cameraman investigating the local legend of the Rat Man. Venturing a little too deep in the sewers, what they find sheds a nicely subtle light on the plight of the homeless before the creature effects come calling.

Okuno’s camerawork and dark tunnel framing is effective, and Anna Hopkins delivers a fine performance as the reporter, but like all the segments here, “Storm Drain” feels like a great idea that’s never fully realized.

That is the most true with Simon Barret’s “Empty Wake.” Barrett, writer of You’re Next, The Guest and Blair Witch, gives us a funeral home employee waiting out a wake that no one is attending. As a storm escalates outside, noises from inside the casket suggest a soul may not be ready to move on.

Barrett lays out some nicely simplistic stakes, and plays a fine game of peek-a-boo with the inside lights going off and on, but the payoff ultimately lands as a bit familiar and anti-climactic.

The opening shot of Timo Tjahjanto’s “The Subject” grabs your attention immediately, bringing you into the horrific laboratory of a mad scientist conducting human experiments. What starts as a fun and gore-filled homage to both Frankenstein and Tetsuo descends into an overlong, first-person shooter game that squanders much of its early potential.

“Terror,” the final segment from Ryan Prows, brings horror comedy to the party with a look at good ‘ol boy militia members aiming to overthrow the government. They’re more than well-armed, they’re fostering a supernatural entity. And you can guess how well that goes.

Prows never completely sets the tone, as the few truly comedic moments crash into an overall atmosphere that plays it too straight for satire.

Reeder closes it all out with the conclusion of “Holy Hell,” bringing a surprise to one of the SWAT teamers and an overly tidy reinforcement of the videotape theme.

V/H/S/94 presents a host of promising ideas and several solid moments. A step up from Viral for sure, but with too many false starts for a rewind-able experience.

Grade: C

Follow George and Hope on Twitter @maddwolf and listen to their weekly movie review podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.

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