No Time To Die

(dir. Fukunaga, wr. Purvis & Wade, Fukunaga, Waller-Bridge)

Of the James Bond actors who put in a serious shift, Sean Connery bowed out with Diamonds are Forever (and then Never Say Never Again), Roger Moore with A View to a Kill, and Pierce Brosnan Die Another Day. So assuming No Time To Die really really is, as he claims, Daniel Craig’s last – and the poor chap’s the same age at this point as was Connery, who’d started wearing a toupee, and not far short of Moore, who was focusing almost entirely on puns and dodgy uncle horseplay – it’s already earned the rare distinction of not making the shortlist for silliest Bond film ever.

On the contrary: it’s certainly the best since Casino Royale, and I won’t argue if you think it’s better. The plot approximately hangs together. The action genuinely grips and isn’t too daft. There’s real beauty (the opening in the snow, the hill-town) and it fits, unlike the colour supplement escapism of some recent outings. The idea that Bond has a character rather than just characteristics, an emotional life, a career path and beyond – one of the distinctive features of the Craig films – plays big in No Time To Die and succeeds.

A similarly distinctive feature of these five films has been the readiness to use bits of Bond history and Bond film history (and sometimes to wink at the audience): in Casino Royale Craig didn’t give a damn whether his martini was shaken or stirred; this time he orders the traditional without comment. Blofeld’s back, and Felix Leiter, and the memory of Vesper Lynd, and the deeply resonant phrase and tune ‘We have all the time in the world’, and not one but two Aston Martins; the island of poison calls on one of the darkest sequences in the original books. In the HQ background there’s still the tiresome tendency to make M a vulnerable old man for Bond to patronise rather than the ruthless head of a national security agency and its assassins – Ralph Fiennes is arguably too good an actor for the part; and the back-home fretting of M and Moneypenny and Q gets dangerously close to Inspector Japp and Miss Lemon and Captain Hastings in the weaker Poirot episodes – but it’s still a big improvement on all the nonsense with Andrew Scott in Spectre.

Léa Seydoux has stayed on – I was a bit vague about that background, I think because Spectre was so wretched that my mind had blotted it out – and with her the ongoing context of Spectre and Blofeld and Bond’s family history. The five year jump between the main opening sequence and the rest of the film in fact neatly matches real-time, taking us from what happened just after the last film (2016) to 2021.

Rami Malek gives basically the same performance that won him his Oscar (and why not? It’s worked for Bond villains from Christopher Walken to Christoph Waltz; that’s the gig) – the disease more blatant than Freddie Mercury’s, the diffidence played for menace rather than pathos. It satisfies: he’s about strong enough, mad enough, weirdly engaging enough. (Waltz, funnily enough, still doesn’t quite carry it off: his re-introduction, Hannibal Lecter-style in a high-tech prison basement, begins with suitable ominousness and, crucially, stillness; then suddenly he goes all impish again and the impact is lost – manic pixie Bond villains don’t cut it.) Regardless of whether at some point James Bond will be a woman, this film features serious professional women: Seydoux, Naomie Harris, Lashana Lynch and, in possibly the most enjoyable sequence of the whole film, Ana de Armas.

In the extended gestation of No Time To Die, much was made of the decision to bring in Phoebe Waller-Bridge to primp the script. (And the advance teases over whether or not Lynch might in some way be a replacement Bond was surely deliberate baiting of those with an over-certain view of what He should look like.) The fresh hands on the keyboard are a big improvement. It’s possible to spot the differences, scene by scene: some have the previous films’ clumsy nods to blokeish warrior ritual, the ponderous poetry, the prolonged and doomed search for a punchline; in others it’s not so much the glimpses of emotional truth that stand out – though that certainly helps – as the basic sharpness of the writing.

No Time To Die has all the action and entertainment you want, but they’re more coherent than usual, and the direction and camerawork (and the score) raise them too. The attempt at greater emotional heft is a bold gamble (face it, we don’t want James Bond to do too much thinking and feeling), but – precisely because the character has so much baggage, bears so much cultural weight, belongs to us all, and because the film generally judges it well – it pays off powerfully.

Release of No Time To Die was repeatedly and notoriously put back because of the pandemic, and – as it bursts into cinemas and box office records now – it does feel like a distinctly pandemic picture. It was the first big film release to be hit by the virus, and it’s the first landmark release of generally-post-lockdown (rather like the Mickey Mouse short which was the last broadcast on BBC TV before the Second World War shut-down and the first after it). Its plot revolves around a threat spreading virally. And it now appears that – with Blofeld conducting his birthday-and-trap-James-Bond-party by video from his cell – even Spectre has to run its operations via Zoom.

Pig

(dir. Sarnoski, wr. Block & Sarnoski)

I’d love to have loved Pig. It’s so marvellously odd, such an unlikely premise – and accordingly so perfect for Nicolas Cage. And in its awareness of light and mood, its willingness to spend time in nature and silence and emotion, it has an instinct for beauty.

But none of its potential strengths ever fully blossoms. As a meditation on love and loss it doesn’t settle. As a celebration of food, of sensual truth and its relationship to experience and memory, it’s half-baked. As a quest through a weird underbelly of a city it doesn’t go nearly far enough; the basement fight club scene is merely uncomfortable and makes little sense without more narrative or tonal significance. Cage’s handling of the guy he remembers from decades earlier is beautiful, but it’s a moral that needs to resonate further through the film. The quirky plot has odd bumps: the tone of the scene with the two dopeheads is wrong for the circumstances; Adam Arkin’s offer to Nicolas Cage doesn’t fit with what we learn subsequently. Cage and Alex Wolff seem to be reaching apotheoses in their final scenes, each played with melancholy power – but the aim is uncertain. Even the silent moments of Cage & pig in the forest aren’t allowed to run as free as they deserve.

It’s been suggested that the studio cut an hour off the original run time – and sure, if you’d been pitched a Nicolas Cage/quest for revenge drama, boy must Pig have been a surprise. That would explain why it feels undeveloped or abbreviated. Still worth watching – because it has moments of beauty and stillness and reflection, and because it’s great that a film like this can get made, and because it’s refreshing to be reminded what Nicolas Cage can do and could do more of – but in the end it’s a bit of a shaggy pig story.

Robin Hood

(dir. Scott, wr. Helgeland)

You can see what Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe were trying to do. It’s just a pity that, in trying to be less merry than mediaeval, less cartoony than Costner, less archaic than accessible, they forgot to make a film about Robin Hood. Which, in a film called Robin Hood, is unfortunate.

The film screams sequel: to be more precise it’s a prequel before the original, a back-story before there’s even a story. It sets up a credible Robin, and one for whom Russell Crowe is just right: the veteran archer, bold but world-weary, plebby but dignified, sneaky but wise. It sets the promising political context: insecure shifty Prince John (Oscar Isaac enjoying himself) and his marginalized counsellors – bit of gravity from Eileen Atkins and William Hurt – and the amusingly oily Sheriff. The brief introductions we get to the merrie men, especially Friar Tuck with his bees, leave us wanting more. And the young outlaws in the forest, mud-daubed, mysterious and ever-watching, are the most powerful thing in the film.

We want more, but we don’t get it; because this film isn’t about any of that.

In the attempt to avoid being silly in the cartoony way, in ends up being silly (and a bit less fun) in the Russell-invents-the-Magna-Carta way. And then in the Russell-rides-surprisingly-quickly-from-the-geographic-centre-of-England-to-the-coast-to-face-a-French-invasion way. Mark Strong makes a fine villain as ever, but the focus shifts too much between baddies: Mark Strong? the King? the French? the principle of divine right monarchy? In the anxiety not to let Matthew Macfadyen pull an Alan Rickman, the Sheriff of Nottingham is briefly established and then disappears almost entirely. Having created a powerfully dark version of the outlaws in the forest, the film dumps it in favour of some chirpy urchin surrogate children for Robin and Marion. And it still finds time for more fireside wassailing and general mediaeval carousery than anyone needs.

The script’s a bit daft at the plot level – think Michael Palin’s remarkably articulate oppressed peasant in Monty Python and the Holy Grail – and intermittently a bit daft at the line level. Most obviously, the critical motto that Robin finds concealed on a sword hilt and that triggers an Unfortunate Memory – ‘Rise and Rise Again, Until Lambs Become Lions’ – is really two slightly feeble mottos that together become very feeble, less than the sum of their parts.

Cate Blanchett is class, of course. The accent occasionally makes 13th century rural life sound like an episode of Corrie, but in headscarf and agricultural mode she looks like something out of a Dutch master painting, and she adds real gravity to the social history and to the relationship with Robin. These really seem like two adults rediscovering affection in a hard world, and their scenes are among the subtler and stronger in the film. Unfortunately – and presumably because you couldn’t get Cate Blanchett in without giving her a fair bit to do – she also gets a rather random country-going-to-dogs pre-credit sequence, a ludicrous cameo in the big battle, and a hilariously naff bit of voice-over to end the film. For the woman who showed in Elizabeth what happens when top performer meets skilful stylish historical script, it must have taken some swallowing.

The filming is muscular and often beautiful: Scott gives good battle, and even incidental glimpses of action – departures, night-infiltrations – have vision and power. Many ingredients for a good film, but unfortunately they’re mostly focused on a follow-up that’ll never be made.

Mary Queen of Scots

(dir. Rourke, wr. Willimon)

Mary Queen of Scots is an historical treat, glorious enough in its styling to have the weight the genre demands, modern enough in its sensibility to have real power. It’s built around – it essentially is – two fabulous performances by two consistently impressive actresses. If either could be said to have a type, each plays against theirs here. The apocryphal moment when they finally meet, after the build-up of character and predicament, is mighty.

(Plus you get a bonus Guy Pearce, for no obvious reason except why the heck not? He’s as excellent as ever, immersed in crusty accent and peculiar hair, but was there really no living English actor available? Did Margot Robbie insist on him being part of the deal so she had a chance for a few beers with an old Neighbours mate?)

It’s a tale of two tragedies. Mary is determined to be human (and female) as well as royal, and doomed therefore to suffer in both. Elizabeth is determined to guard her royalness, and doomed therefore to sacrifice humanity and femininity. The only concern with this approach is that it tends to reinforce the idea that women are invariably more happy and natural if they’re having sex and babies. Mary Queen of Scots has always been played as the doomed romantic, the sexy human one, Elizabeth as artificial and repressed – rather than someone who might just possibly have been satisfied with her choice. This representation reaches its, er, climax in the montage where Saoirse gets cunnilingus and Margot gets the pox. Take a hint, Margot! According to traditional horror-movie convention, Mary’s sexual maturity leads to disaster while the virgin survives; four centuries later, posterity is still being kinder.

Polar

(dir. Åkerlund, wr. Santos, Rothwell)

Polar’s rather a nasty and annoying film – in fact an ugly cut-and-shunt of two different films which the less successful half sadly dominates.

One film is about an international assassin trying to retire, but haunted by his demons and by the the old life that won’t let him go peacefully. You’ve seen this film before, about once a week, but this outing has some good dark styling, and Mads Mikkelsen is ideal for the part. The former Le Chiffre and Hannibal has credible ruthlessness and to spare; and he also does weary wounded melancholy well. There’s a nice sub-plot with the new neighbour (Vanessa Hudgens) with whom he starts to form a wary friendship, and a great scene where he’s dragooned into teaching a class of young kids about life in the ‘funeral business’ (“So, kids, anyone know what a body looks like after it’s been in the water too long?”).

Meanwhile, because graphic novels and Hollywood and young people, a team of the next generation of assassins are on his trail, and here it all falls apart. They’re set up as a hip, colourful set of Characters-with-capital-‘C’s, each with the obligatory freeze frame and graffiti name-title: one’s a nymphomaniac, one’s an icy Asian dominatrix, one’s er got red hair, and the other two are sort of swarthy. They race around doing lots of gratuitous violence and drugs and sex and, despite or because of the fact that all their kills have to involve an elaborate sex scene and a sniper rifle and some arch banter, they’re remarkably inefficient. It’s not clear whether they’re supposed to be cool or ridiculous, and they end up lost in the middle – and, indeed, they’re lost somewhere in the middle of the film. They’re never stylish or funny or threatening or anything really, and their half of the film can’t work out how it relates to the other, vivid modernity or ironic counterpoint or something shiny to keep part of the audience happy.

Their boss – the ultimately ruthless super-villain – is Little Britain’s Matt Lucas, for God’s sake. He’s enjoying himself enormously, with outrageous suiting and accent, and the film lifts each time he appears. Unfortunately it’s not the same film as Mads Mikkelsen’s in, and by the time that one reaches its dark climax we’ve stopped caring.

Cellular: in praise of tight writing

(dir. Ellis, wr. Cohen, Morgan)

Cellular is so slight, so generic, as to be almost a non-film. And yet the skill in its writing puts vastly grander films by vastly grander directors to shame.

It’s a thriller like so many: neat gimmick (kidnappee’s cannibalization of broken phone means she can only contact one random person; I’ve no idea if that’s how it would work, but whatever) leads to focused and escalating race against time. It’s got later career Kim Basinger, early career Chris Evans, and relatively early career Jason Statham exploring American accents. It’s got relatively early career mobile phones. Brisk but not spectacular action. Characters – the gobby lawyer, the slacker dude – are coloured well within the lines, stay safely in the shallow end. There’s barely anything to review.

And yet it works. It just works. Really very effectively. The situation is established ruthlessly fast (count the number of minutes before Basinger has been kidnapped and found herself next to a broken phone; note that there are a couple of important plot points already under the belt). The threat continues to move, to develop: each time the goodies think they’ve got something working, the challenge steps up to another level. Unlike many similar thrillers, when the scenario starts to open out from its original premise, it doesn’t lose energy or focus. Our knowledge and the goodies’ knowledge of the conspiracy continues to move, building and building; look at the efficiency with which a handy manoeuvre by Chris Evans at the airport x-ray also reveals significant new information about the threat. The lawyer looks like a one-scene comedy cameo, but they bring him back, looping a couple of plot lines back in, making maximum use of the character and his car. The scenario opens out from the original wheeze of the phone call that mustn’t be broken; but at the climax of the contest, the moment of ultimate crisis, it’s all about the phone again. This is tight, sharp, skilful writing, and it just works, and it’s so satisfying when it does.

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

(dir. and wr. Tarantino)

Quentin Tarantino makes genre films. Actually, he’s made approximately one film in each of a series of genres. He’s made his heist film, and his road-trip romance, and his martial arts epic, and his war film, and his history, and his western. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Tarantino’s fairytale.

It’s a stylish and (especially considering the length) absorbing fairytale, and much more enjoyable than Django or Hateful 8. Tarantino the great film-lover gets to express his love with great attentiveness and elegance: this is an Indian summer of the sixties, the cars and clothes and shop fronts and television and sounds brilliantly, fondly recaptured. Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt are ideal: the former has more to do as the TV star on the slide, and does it with his usual vigour and depth; Pitt basically just has to be Pitt, but damn he does it so well.

Tarantino the master of scenes is here too, especially in Brad Pitt’s visit to the ranch where the Manson ‘family’ are hiding out like so many malevolent flower-power zombies, but also when Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate – in a less charming homage to the sixties, she looks everything and says almost nothing – visits the cinema watching her own latest film.

There are two elements of unease. The first is that Tarantino is making a point about the nature and worth of old Hollywood, and – however cool Brad Pitt is – at heart it’s a rather dubious and unattractive point. The second is that you have to be a really really famous and successful director to be allowed to make a three hour film that’s part elegiac homage and part shaggy dog. The extended sequence of DiCaprio on the film set, the bit where he imagines himself playing the Steve McQueen part in The Great Escape, Damien Lewis’s cameo as Steve McQueen at the pool-party: these are skilfully done, but they’re little more than variety act turns of questionable benefit to the film. If Tarantino really loves Hollywood, should he be held to the same discipline as a less-feted director?

Leave No Trace

(dir. Granik, wr. Granik, Rosellini)

This is marvellous writing. Because there’s so little writing.

Apparently the first thing lead Ben Foster did, after coming on board, was sit down with director Debra Granik and cut out even more of his lines. The first 10-20 minutes of the film, just father and daughter in the wilds – the heroically unshowy Foster, uncomfortable and intense, and the brilliant Thomasin Mackenize – are largely silent. The few exchanges they do have contain precisely no elaborations of emotion – total absence of “that’s my girl”s etc – no elaborations of anything.

There’s a similar lack of melodrama in their interactions with others: the film repeatedly avoids the obvious choices, the obvious conflicts. When we expect the representatives of regular life to be uncomprehending and mean, they’re mostly rather reasonable people trying to do their jobs, and even to be a bit helpful. It locates the film’s tension not in a struggle between goodies and baddies, but in one person’s struggle to survive in the world, and it’s the more powerful for it.

The final scene, a quietly devastating climax for those involved, is silent: we know these characters now, we know what they feel, we know the paths they must follow, and so we don’t need to be told any of it. Silence is the most marvellous writing of all.

The Two Popes

The Two Popes does (/do) exactly what it says on the tin. It features two Popes; no more, no fewer. They are played by two actors who really look rather like them. (Director Meirelles apparently first saw Jonathan Pryce in a meme pointing out how much he looks like Pope Francis.) The two of them talk. Not a lot else happens.

To that extent, it really works. The two performances are as brilliant as you’d expect from these two actors; too often, indeed, over-busy editing pulls away from the faces when we could have done with a bit more of their reactions; feelings felt, not told. A film of two old men talking for more than two hours stays remarkably brisk.

But there’s no more, either. In particular, the film never pushes far from the the stereotypes of the two: Pope Benedict is pitched at the start as cynical, conservative and out-of-touch (the Beatles gag that dominates the trailer), and his later signs of wisdom, wit and humility come too late; Pope Francis is pitched as the coolest of Cardinals (football! tango! discussing oregano with the gardener!) as well as the most humble and humane, and the later attempt to give him an uncomfortable bit of past only makes him more pleasingly human. In Po-faced Pope vs Pop Pope there’s really no contest; and there’s no contest of ideals of the kind emphasized by the film’s blurb. We never hear why the conservative point of view might be meaningful for the Church and supported by so many. And we never get much sense of either man having much influence on the other.

So in the end it’s a pleasing bit of (vaguely) historical re-enactment, two great actors representing two rather interesting men having a relatively deep chat; and nothing wrong with that.

The Lone Ranger

(d. Verbinski, w. Haythe, Elliott)

The constant irritation with The Lone Ranger is that there’s a thoroughly enjoyable film concealed within it, almost entirely obscured by various substantial bits of superfluous nonsense. It doesn’t need anything more to make it better; it needs considerably less. If you popped out to the loo or put the kettle on at the right moments, The Lone Ranger would be a better and more enjoyable film.

It’s not. It’s a heaving, straining, bursting-at-the-seams, over-plotted, over-special-effected, mediocre film instead.

Image result for lone ranger depp

Johnny Depp is enjoying himself, anyway, and his ratty grumbling ninja version of Tonto approximately works, in an unlikely place somewhere between Hawkeye from Last of the Mohicans and Baldrick; Cactus Jack Sparrow. Armie Hammer is an effective Lone Ranger next to him, straight man but not fool. The relationship just about works, and the ambiguity about who’s the lead. And the plot’s ok: bit of backstory to hint at depth, bit of bonding, some revenge and some perfidy-thwarting.

And if you cut about half an hour, it’ll be the right length and a satisfactory film. Lose one of the backstories, distracting and over-burdening. Lose the perfidy-by-committee bit, and stick to the core baddies. Lose the final elaboration of the train stunt, where the incredible becomes pure (and not very good) cartoon.

Lose Helena Bonham-Carter. At this point she occupied a bizarre Orson Welles-like place in film, drifting around doing cameos for friends apparently using bits of costume stolen from whatever she’d done the previous week. Her grungy punk fallen woman thing is as enjoyable as ever, but irrelevant here. Sorry.

Above all, lose the totally redundant and maddening framing bit in the museum. Because what the heck is it there for? Middle-aged actors in vaguely convincing ancient make-up stopped being a thing in the mid-80s. I was hanging on, teeth gritted, for the end, purely because there had to be some twist coming – some last-minute heart-warming reveal that would explain this otherwise pointless indulgence – obviously the kid’s going to turn out to be the young JFK or Bruce Wayne or something… But then – spoiler alert! there’s nothing to spoil. It’s pointless. Enjoy your cup of tea.