The latest Bond film is beautiful to look at, well acted, and a bit disjointed. In spite of some well-done action scenes, it’s surprisingly laidback. It’s not quite limp, but it clearly lacks the dramatic tension of its immediate successor Skyfall.

Daniel Craig is back again for his fourth and, some are saying, his last outing as the British loose cannon/spy. He’s been the right man for the reboot of the series, and he’s a good actor, not just a good Bond. His trademark intensity is a little tamped down this time around, and that’s a loss, as it accounts for a great deal of the energy—and enjoyment—of the most recent Bond films. Craig seems a little tired this time around. Understandable at this point, but less interesting.

The plot? Does it matter? Spectre reaches way back into the Bond legend to old villains and conspiracies, but it’s not enough to ratchet up the tension to the requisite levels. Christoph Waltz as the bad guy is a cliché at this point (I’m sure it seemed genius when someone first thought of it.) He’s, to use a word with multiple implications, “fine.” But he’s not spine-tingling or strange or intriguing. He’s just CW pulled out of a Tarantino film and told to bring it down a notch.

Much has been made of the oldest Bond “girl,” the international star Monica Belluci, one of cinema’s great beauties. (For Americans, they know her best as Mary Magdelene in The Passion of the Christ.) Yes, she was 50 (51 now) and older than Craig. But her cinematic treatment hedges many a bet. She’s presented as a possibly grieving widow, dressed head to toe in elegant, fashionable and complimentary black. She even has a veil over her (slightly wrinkled?) face when we meet her, and she has a good deal of makeup on. Yes, she’s older than every other Bond females. But she’s also an international beauty who is lovingly dressed and photographed, and she is dismissed from the picture almost as quickly as she arrives. It’s the slightest tip of the hat to an acknowledgement of age (for Bond and for the audience), but more likely a reach to the international market.

The same, of course, goes with the casting of Léa Seydoux, fresh off the controversial Blue is the Warmest Color, but who also appeared in smaller roles in The Grand Budapest Hotel, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and Midnight in Paris. She is there because she is a young, lovely French star who will help to guarantee the expected heavy international gross. She is, like Waltz, “fine.” She and Craig go through the necessary paces, but the electricity is low wattage at best.

Each sequence seems to have an identity and feel all its own unconnected with a strong momentum; the film just doesn’t have the forward drive of its predecessors. Sam Mendes is back as director, but the cinematographer isn’t Skyfall’s legendary Roger Deakins, who created beautiful imagery that dazzled one minute and hypnotized the next. The new DC is Hoyte Van Hoytema, best known for Interstellar, Her, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. He brings a burnished yellow tone to much of the work, and occasionally rivals the word “Prince of Darkness” Gordon Willis’s work on The Godfather Part Two. The “looks like one take” work of the first sequence is stunning, but what it’s photographing is less than exciting. There is beauty, and there is efficiency. There’s just little excitement.

The script and story credits include seven people, and perhaps therein lies the problem. It could easily have cranked up (spoiler alert) the personal connection of CW’s Blofeld, but the film does with those possibilities what it does with the rest of the film: it pulls back when it ought to press in. The film is observed rather than felt or experienced. That fine for an art film, less fine for a Bond.

The new crowd gets mixed reviews. Ralph Fiennes, one of the best actors working today, just doesn’t quite fit as the new M, and Dame Judi Dench is most sorely missed; when a video of her has more draw and pizzazz than the “real” presence of an actor of Fiennes’ stature, you know something is missing. Ben Whishaw is always an addition, but isn’t given enough to do. The same with Naomie Harris, who should have, and could easily carry, a more expansive role.

The film has all the requisite parts, and it is the sum of its parts, but no more. It has exciting action sequences, varied and beautiful settings, and characters that could have been fascinating. But a Bond film, or any good film, ought to be more than that. If one is a fan, then this is a worthy entry. Skyfall resonated, and on many levels. Spectre resonates a bit, but more quietly and with a smaller impact. If Craig is done, it’s a decent, if not grand, swan song.

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Bridge of Spies

The newest Spielberg film is out, and while it’s second-level Spielberg, that means it’s only better than 95 percent of what else is out there. Bridge of Spies is based on the true story of an American lawyer’s defense of a Soviet spy (a plot that grows more intriguing in phases). This Cold War tale puts Spielberg squarely back in the “our great American director” category again, and the film can be listed alongside Amistad, Munich, Lincoln, and Saving Private Ryan, though it’s not as good as the last three in that list.

To avoid spoilers, I’ll only mention (for those who can remember that event) that the Gary Powers story is folded in, as well as other all-but-forgotten intrigues of the era, causing the film to unfold in layers—perhaps one of its strongest aspects.

The star is Spielberg favorite Tom Hanks, firmly ensconced in his modern-Jimmy-Stewart role, even more specifically the Stewart of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Like that 1939 film, this film presents its leading man giving a stirring speech before one of the three branches of our government (the Supreme Court instead of the Senate). Hanks is solid if not especially great, which pretty much goes for the rest of the film. Bridge of Spies is solid, in almost every definition of the word. It’s solid in that it’s an accomplished film, with nary a misstep, and it’s deftly acted and directed. The film is also solid where it needed to be a little more fluid, or risky. For a film about spying and risk, it plays safe where it needn’t have.

The other main actor in the film besides Hanks is one of the greatest English-speaking actors of the age, Mark Rylance, who has yet to become a popular film star. (He’s already a stage legend.) The relatively young winner of three Tony Awards, Rylance is perhaps best known for his recent work as Thomas Cromwell in the British television series Wolf Hall, though he will likely break through in recognizability, if not in popularity, with the lead in Spielberg’s next film, The BFG. Here he plays Soviet spy Rudolph Abel in a performance that redefines understatement. As with his Cromwell performance, Rylance turns silence and stillness into something that crackles with subliminal energy. We should be happy that at least some of his work is being recorded.

Amy Ryan is one of our most talented actresses, and she is either wasted or miscast (or both) as Hanks’ character’s wife. Full disclosure: I didn’t pay much to attention to her character at first and thought, “If only Amy Ryan had been cast in this part, she would really have done something with it.” In her next scene, of course, I realized it was Amy Ryan, and was simultaneously embarrassed and disappointed. The part doesn’t give her much to do beyond being “the wife.”

The script is basic and just serviceable. It all unfolds with little surprise but (here I go again) solid craftsmanship. It’s credited to Matt Charman and a couple of guys called Ethan and Joel Coen. Charman is mostly known for his TV work, and I’m still wondering what the Coen brothers brought to the table here.

The cinematography is by the legendary Janusz Kaminski , Spielberg’s go-to, who did the camerawork for Lincoln, War Horse, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Munich, War of the Worlds, The Terminal, Catch Me if You Can, Minority Report, Amistad, and Schindler’s List (to name a few!) It is beautifully done, and is probably the most accomplished part of the film.

The film makes a record of an event that would be have been easy to forget, and we can credit Spielberg with being our great war—including Cold War—filmmaker of record. The stories of the Amistad, what happened with the Israelis athletes at the 1972 Olympics, what Lincoln did to get the Thirteenth Amendment passed–these may well have been relegated to the dustbin of history, as Oscar Schindler’s story may have been, if not having joined Spielberg’s oeuvre. While Bridge of Spies is not the most exciting of his films—the slow and deliberate pace only has some advantages—it is a good if not great film, and one that captures a moment in time with excellence.

For those who think that action and suspense only come with dramatic movements and noise, let it be known that Spielberg can create nail-biting suspense with people waiting on a bridge, slowly walking on said bridge, and awaiting a phone call. Great moments do not a great film make, but this director’s work is always worthy of study, and for those especially interested in American history, it’s worth a view of his latest.

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Clouds of Sils Maria

Though the film is fascinating in several aspects, I saw this film for one reason: to see if all the hype about Twilight’s Kristen Stewart was legitimate. A young actress who became something of a laughingstock for her limited expressions has won the French equivalent of the Oscar (the César) for Best Supporting Actress. Can that happen? Are the French just crazy here, as in the Jerry Lewis mode?

No, they’re not. Stewart, who began to erase her Twilight persona with a sensitive performance in last year’s Still Alice (the film that won Julianne Moore her Oscar), completely nails her part here in this French/German/Swiss production. If not worthy of the award (and I wouldn’t know), it’s certainly worthy of attention and of giving this young actress another much more serious look.

The film itself is undoubtedly worthy of greater attention than I will pay here. It’s a feast for the eyes, and I wish I’d seen it on the big screen; some of the images are stunning. It’s also a treatise on age, perspective, Hollywood, art, the theatre, and human foibles in general. There are mysterious elements that will keep people guessing and second-guessing for years. There are echoes of Juliette Binoche’s own life and career all the way through the film (she has the female lead) that could provide grist for the real life/art life mill for ages.

Binoche’s character is asked to take the part of the older woman in a play in which she performed the young girl part years ago. Stewart plays her young assistant, so the parallels begin. (Real life has the director of Clouds, Olivier Assayas, being the cowriter of the film that brought Binoche to stardom years ago. And the parallels continue.) Of course, Binoche is exquisite, as she belongs to that rarified category of actresses who can almost do no wrong on film (see also Judi Dench and Helen Mirren, among others). Her scenes with Stewart are nearly hyper-realistic and ring with connection and truth.

So if you’re interesting in stunning cinematography, meditations on aging, questions of identity, and even questions of “what’s real here and what might not be?” this is worthwhile. As a showcase for an actress that was a joke a few years ago and who is proving herself to be an accomplished performer with great potential, it’s a must-see.

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This is going to be a short one. I read the great reviews and decided to see Sicario, the story of, as described by IMDB, “an idealistic FBI agent [who] is enlisted by an elected government task force to aid in the escalating war against drugs at the border area between the U.S. and Mexico.”

I was most interested in seeing Emily Blunt go in another direction from her earlier work. As always, she is solid, but it is Benicio Del Toro who, again, steals the show. I could tell you now beautifully it’s shot by the legendary Roger Deakins, or how Blunt proves once again (after Edge of Tomorrow) that she can play tough in addition to funny (The Devils Wears Prada) and musically talented (Into the Woods).

We could spend some time on that fact that this is just the latest entry into the “drugs are bad and the war on drugs is hell” category. It’s like Traffic in some ways, or The Counselor or Requiem for a Dream in certain other ways. I could even go into detail about what a mess the film is structurally, and how confusing it is in terms of who I am supposed to be following.

But the big question that remains for me after viewing it is, “Who is this movie for?” We already know Blunt can play tough, and that Josh Brolin has become a solid actor. We know that Del Toro seems to lift every film he’s in, and has an inimitable screen presence. I already know that Deakins is an artist of the first rank. We already know that the war on drugs isn’t going to be won, and that the good guys aren’t always good and the bad guys have hearts and families, too.

The film touches on all these things, but never melds them together into a cohesive vision. I thought when Del Toro seemed to take over the film that we might see a kind of Marion Crane-to-Normal Bates in Psycho type of shift of audience allegiance. No chance. We’re never allowed in enough. There is a kind of descent-into-hell journey toward the climax that is visually intriguing, but it doesn’t resonate as much as just looks great.

If we want to see another great supporting performance by Del Toro or want to view another example of a great cinematographer’s work, see Sicario. If not, you’re in good company.

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The Martian

Intelligent, well-crafted Hollywood films are supposed to be narrowly focused and possess a mid-sized budget—think All the President’s Men, The Social Network, and Moneyball. Space films are supposed to be bloated and/or full of dangerous other-worldly creatures. Then came Gravity, a smart technical triumph and gorgeous to look at, but rather thin plot-wise.

Some directors are also supposed to “lose it” a little at the end of their careers. Think Clint Eastwood, who seemed to slip from his pedestal with J. Edgar and Jersey Boys. Then came American Sniper, a deeply accomplished film looking and feeling as if were the product of a much younger man.

Ridley Scott, director of classics such as Alien, Blade Runner, and Gladiator, seemed to be slipping too with the lumpy, awkward Exodus: Gods and Kings and the overblown and unmoving Prometheus. Yet he too has bounced back with an intelligent, big-budget The Martian, making his stamp on the space film as he did with horror, dystopia and the sword-and-sandal film.

Then along comes The Martian, directly by the legendary Ridley Scott. The Martian gives us Matt Damon as astronaut Mark Watney, left behind for dead by his fellow crewmembers after a hurried escape from Mars. The film follows his attempts at survival while the returning crew and his associates back on the ground try to figure out how they could possibly effect a rescue.

It used to be that actors put in hard-to-believe situations or otherworldly scenarios tended to declaim rather than act; perhaps they or their directors felt that the intensity of the delivery made up for the unreality of the situation. But since LOTR and the most recent batch of superhero films, we now expect actors to give their all and add three-dimensional emotional reality to their scenes.

The quality of the acting here in The Martian is so assured that we never question what’s happening on screen. With Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kate Mara, Jeff Daniels, the underappreciated Michael Peña, Sean Bean and Kristen Wiig, we have a cast of mostly familiar faces, but they are some very talented faces. Chastain, who I feel normally can do no wrong, may be a bit too isolated/introverted for the crew leader, and Wiig, making an obvious take-me-seriously-as-a-dramatic-actress move here, brings nothing new or interesting to a character that just seems to stand around looking worried and distracted. Everyone else is solid if not a little predictable in terms of casting (cough—Jeff Daniels).

The lead and the strength of the film is Damon. I often ask, “Who else could have done this role as well?” Well, there are many good actors his age that could do the work, but none have the persona necessary to make us care enough to carry the film. The plot is Cast Away on Mars to some extent, and perhaps to a greater extent, Damon is this generation’s Tom Hanks. As an audience, we couldn’t possibly care more for an actor’s survival. Plus Damon brings the dramatic heft, charm and humor necessary for the part. One either connects with an audience or one doesn’t. Damon does it in spades.

The look, as to be expected from a Scott film, is nothing less than dazzling. Mars, the spacecraft with the escaped crew, and home base all have their unique looks. The Red Planet, shot in the same area in Jordan as Lawrence of Arabia, is breathtakingly beautiful and desolate at the same time. The spacecraft is white, clean and sealed, while home base is dark and densely packed.

The film is a first cousin to Apollo 13 in its love of science (now a verb thanks to the film—God help us!), its optimism and its deadline-driven engineering creativity. In another era it might be called naïve or Reaganesque. It does stand out from most of today’s films in its commitment to both here with the added element of possible rescue. Unlike Gravity, our main character is not alone, and in fact is increasingly supported by the entire world by the end of the film. It earns its unabashed positive enthusiasm and ends up being the epic feel-good film of the year.

Can a film be intimate and huge in scope at the same time? The LOTR films do that well, several of John Ford’s westerns do, as well as Lawrence of Arabia and David Lean’s other pre-Zhivago films. So do many of Scott’s past works, especially Alien and The Gladiator. The Martian is both intimate and sweeping. And unlike many sweeping movies, the narrative moves along at at good clip, giving Scott a solid and energetic script on which to hang his stunning visuals. Add his stellar cast (pun intended) and an emotionally satisfying ending, and Scott may end up with the biggest hit of his career.

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One Way Passage: A Tour Through Yesterday

After recently watching a “minor” work of the great British team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, “I Know Where I’m Going”, my wife asked me how I enjoyed the 1945 film, most of which was set in the rugged Scottish islands. I responded that though it wasn’t the most enjoyable film in some ways, it was like a visit to another land with interesting people and delightful customs.

That’s similar to how I felt upon revisiting the 1932 classic One Way Passage, directed by Tay Garnett (perhaps known best for 1946’s The Postman Always Rings Twice). That, however, was a trip to another time, another kind of cinema, another set of stars. 1932 was an unusual time in films. Sound was most definitely now a part of film, and a new crew of stars had appeared. This is also known as the Pre-Code years, when films were experimenting with how risqué they could get, and were pressing boundaries until the real enforcement of the Code in 1934.

One Way Passage is surprisingly short film (a scant 67 minutes) that feels much fuller. It won the Oscar for Best Writing, Original Story, a precursor to the Best Original Screenplay Academy Award. To keep spoilers away, I can only say that it involves the meeting of a convicted criminal and a very sick young woman, and what happens after they meet aboard a ship.

It’s an extraordinary film for several reasons. It starts a pre-Thin Man William Powell, who delivers a beautiful performance as the criminal. If you’re only used to seeing him in his later work in the Thin Man series or even Life with Father, this early work is a revelation. His performance is delightful and he makes his character genuinely suave without an ounce of oil.

Even more fascinating is the all-but-forgotten Kay Francis. A clotheshorse extraordinaire at this time in American film, Francis had her best year in 1932, between this film and the Ernst Lubitsch classic Trouble in Paradise. There was no one like her before this, and there certainly has been no one like her since. Watch her for her smooth elegance, or her wardrobe, or her glamorous ennui, or even her inability to pronounce a solid “r,” but watch her. Her career was for a moment in time, and she perhaps more than anyone was destroyed by the infamous 1938 “Box Office Poison” article, which did ultimately little damage to Greta Garbo, Katherine Hepburn, Fred Astaire, Joan Crawford, Mae West, and Marlene Dietrich. Francis’s questionable life choices contributed to her descent at the box office as well, but this was Kay Francis at her lovely peak.

The subplots and supporting players are where the film shows its age—which is simply a descriptive rather than critical comment. The comic relief provided by Frank McHugh is most clearly a trip to another age. His bumbling drunk act and signature laugh can grow tiring quickly, and would never find a place in a more modern film. But it provides insight into what was once thought humorous, and shows us how the role of the supporting comedian has both evolved and in some ways has stayed pretty much the same.
The other supporting player is the wonderful Aline MacMahon (Oscar-nominated 13 years later for Dragon Seed, but a recognizable face for those familiar with ‘30s and ‘40s film). She is almost miscast here, and the narrative arc for her veers into the unbelievable, but she is a comic gem, and is funny and refreshing even now.

Take a trip back in time, especially in film time, and enjoy the lovely story and deft performances in One Way Passage. You’ll definitely enjoy the outing.

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The Two Great Film Anniversaries You Probably Didn’t Hear About

2015 is the one-hundred-year anniversary of two monumental events in the history of cinema. The fact you’re not hearing about them is two-fold: one is especially technical and most folks aren’t interested, and the other is being tragically choked out by political correctness.

The first is the centennial of Technicolor. I was blessed to see the touring exhibit, In Glorious Technicolor, at the George Eastman House in Rochester before it went to New York City and Vienna. As a complete film nerd, I was in cinema heaven watching the various film clips, seeing the cameras, reading the history of the technology and learning about the other landmark Technicolor masterpieces beyond the usual trilogy of The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, and Singin’ in the Rain.

I was also able to see one of the most beautifully photographed films in history, The Red Shoes, in glorious 35mm Technicolor in the accompanying film screenings. For fans of film and/or the technology, the exhibit was exhilarating. But for most folks, even those who love film, the whole thing might come off as a little technical and a big geeky.

The more important centenary was the 100-year anniversary of the release of the first great American cinematic masterwork, Birth of a Nation, directed by D.W. Griffith. A story of the Civil War and the early years of Reconstruction, including the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the film is a seminal work of film, and particularly American film. Griffith took what he’d learned in the various shorts he’d created in the previous half-dozen years (the filming was done in 1914), and essentially created modern film language in the one film. I could go on and on about the brilliance of the film, and how important it is in the history of the art form. Suffice it to say that in many ways, this film is the beginning of modern cinema, albeit in its silent form.

The reason we’re not hearing about this, of course, is because Birth of a Nation is not just a masterpiece, but a breathtakingly racist masterpiece. Though Griffith himself was not a mean or vindictive filmmaker (actually, quite the opposite), he, to use modern parlance, didn’t self-identify as a racist. This of course makes the film all the more fascinating and all the more a reflection of the man and of the time of the film’s creation. The entire situation is rife with possibilities of discussion and study.

The first film class I taught was History of American Film, and Birth of a Nation was a part of it. I no longer teach that specific class, and I’ve heard since teaching it that many similar classes around the country have dropped the film. Were I to go back to teaching that subject, I would reinstate the film posthaste. It needs to continue to be seen, and it needs to be studied.

Of course it’s a difficult film! Of course it presents scenarios and images that are repugnant and more than uncomfortable! But for two reasons, we need to keep it front and center in our studies of American film.

For one, it’s simply brilliant, and practically a miracle of filmmaking. Watching earlier works by various American directors sets Birth of a Nation in a context that needs to be understood to appreciate the film, and that demonstrates what a wonder it is technically. Any modern filmmaker can see that this film is a cinematic blossoming of a great variety of developments in cinematography, acting, camera movement, editing and more. To pull the film from view and from study creates a huge hole in our understanding of how film language evolved.

The second reason it needs to be studied is that we need to keep front and center the history of American and race. Certainly the study of race in American film must include this work. But to understand America itself, there are some things that simply can’t and shouldn’t be ignored. Our nation’s history with slavery, racism, and Jim Crow is part of who we’ve been, and still are to a great extent. Dropping the film from study isn’t going to make us a better people, only a more ignorant one.

It’s regrettable from a film history point of view that our first great masterwork is shot through with racial bigotry. But the fact remains that one of the great works of American film, and perhaps still the most important historically, contains a great deal of offensive racism. That’s part of who we were, and even today, art can also be offensive. Birth of a Nation is a work of art, and it’s also objectionable. To essentially ignore its 100th anniversary indicates a certain inability or lack of desire to wrestle with the issues of the film, and the issues of the undeniable fact of the film’s importance.

We can appreciate the film’s strengths while still understanding its weaknesses. To throw out the baby with the bathwater is essentially cowardly, and it damages a true understanding of film history in general and American film in particular. If you have the time and inclination, see Birth of a Nation and respond to it. (If you do, see the longest version you can find; believe it or not, the longest versions flow more easily than the shorter, choppy ones.)

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