Brief Musings: Passing, Dune, The French Dispatch, and just in time for Halloween, Antlers

Finding a common ground within the variety of movies that I watch, sometimes back to back because such is my life of living on the edge, can be a challenge. Looking at the list of what I’ve seen during the Halloween season alone makes me look like a human kaleidoscope, and because I’ve limited time to sit down and write something comprehensive, sometimes, like now, I have to clump them together and hope that the damn thing makes sense. The four movies I’m about to write some petite mots about don’t have much in common: two are based on novels, one is a director’s incursion into folk horror, and the fourth is a homage to none other than the elitist read, The New Yorker. And France, if you want to include that. What they all have in common is that all are the works of a creator stepping into the ambitious.

Ruth Negga is Claire Bellew in Rebecca Hall’s Passing

If only Nella Larsen had lived long enough to see her 1929 novella Passing be made into a movie. It makes me wonder how no one seemed to notice her work before when she was a part of the Harlem Renaissance. It might be possible that because she only published modestly, and has only two novels to her name, Larsen somehow disappeared into literary obscurity. Rebecca Hall brings her tragic story to vibrant life with her debut movie. This is the story of two African American women of mixed heritage, so mixed that they could ‘pass’ for white during the 1920s. When we meet Irene “Reenie” Redfield (Tessa Thompson), we only catch glimpses of her wide-brimmed hat as she flits about town, barely noticed. Hall surrounds Thompson with so much sun and light that presenting it in black and white leaves Thompson virtually drowning in a sea of whiteness, and that’s the purpose. You see, Irene, comfortably married to a doctor (Andre Holland of Moonlight), so she has the means to spend her days shopping and visiting places that even in New York would still be almost 100% white.

When Irene runs into a blond woman looking right at her at a chic restaurant, she seems shocked that anyone would know her since she seems to enjoy the anonymity of moving in predominantly white neighborhoods without as much as leaving a ripple. The woman turns out to be Claire Bellew (Ruth Negga), an old childhood friend whom she hasn’t seen in 10 years. The women catch up, and we learn that Claire has married rich, but upon meeting the husband, we become informed that he is virulently racist, and Claire has effectively fooled him in her ruse, even pretending herself to hate black people. But the movie moves away from Mr. Bellow (Alexander Skarsgard) and focuses on Irene and Claire, and the effect Claire has on everyone she meets. The danger of their rekindled friendship is that for a woman like Claire, being seen in Harlem might raise eyebrows, and it’s not long when the inevitable comes to pass, with dire consequences for both women.

I’ve been seeing Tessa Thompson for some time now in movies and her fascinating role in Westworld. To be honest, I’ve become almost enamored with her acting style. As Irene, Thompson is all internalization with her wide, Bette Davis eyes, her flawless enunciation, her delicate manners that recalls old Hollywood. Negga, meanwhile, counterbalances Thompson as she exudes a girlish sensuality that hides some inner pain. Just look at her deep-set eyes. The women seem to be also telegraphing some queer desire — I wouldn’t put it past Irene, who rebukes kisses from her husband, that she may have some deeply buried attraction to Claire, often seen bathed in light and exuberance. Then again… desire may be a simple observation. It makes me wonder if Irene might also quietly covet the type of life that Claire lives. She certainly reveals quite a lot when attending a function and discussing race with a close friend (played by Bill Camp). The movie manages to express quite a bit when Camp’s character, initially fascinated by Claire, upon learning her secret, basically ignores her. It’s as though he sees her as a fraud rather than the more genuine Irene who isn’t trying so hard to be noticed. His comments on the muscularity of some of the black men who attend the function leave a lot to say on how attraction shapes desire and the ongoing fetishization whites have often had towards blacks.

What I love about Hall’s movie is how she manages to convey so much with so little. Much like Todd Haynes’ 2015 movie Carol, Hall allows her characters to inhabit their own world and their spaces, and even when they talk, what they state may mean one thing but what their body language does may mean something else entirely. Hall definitely learned her time as an actress: she has a keen sense of placement, lighting, and cadence. Her movie might be deliberate, but it is never slow. If anything, it marches relentlessly to its climax, building tension scene after scene like a pressure cooker that at one point must release. If she decides to do more movies, and I hope so, I’ll be at the ready to see what she does next.

The French Dispatch

Wes Anderson is an acquired taste, and I mean that with respect. With every movie, he continues to build upon his style to a point where it almost threatens to override his movies proper. With The French Dispatch, he takes his artificial scenarios and pushes them to a level almost approaching abstraction. A movie based on the death of the founder of a magazine (Bill Murray) that seems to be a blatant stand-in for The New Yorker, who decides, as a homage to its creator, to publish five of its best stories, is not something that screams Hollywood. Who would even? Anderson, it seems, and he fabricates worlds so completely unique that we get lost in their intricacies. There are no stars in this movie; the only stars, and heroes if you will, are the writers and journalists who make up The French Dispatch, and as someone who is as budding as they can get, I love it. This is a movie that you may have to see twice to catch the minute details hidden in plain sight: Anderson loves his tiny, mannered quotes, his in-jokes, and his movie is littered with them. His actors are as stilted and deadpan as ever, and it seems everyone he has ever worked with shows up for the tiniest of parts. Notable here is Timothee Chalamet as a self-obsessed but also awkward activist hilariously named Zefirelli who loses his virginity to Anderson regular Frances McDormand as the writer who has to ghostwrite his manifesto, Lea Seydoux, paired with Benicio del Toro, as a crazed artist and his muse, and Jeffrey Wright as an author based on James Baldwin who goes on a wacky Parisian adventure.

The drama behind the making of Dune is long and rambling and I won’t get into it because, not today. I’m into my seventh paragraph and I still have another movie to write about. What little I can say about Denis Villeneuve’s epic movie is that this is one you must, above all else, view in movie theaters. I made the mistake of seeing it through HBOMAX, and nothing against the small screen — even though mine is nothing to cry about — but nothing Villeneuve will show you can be truly appreciated in the comfort of your living room/screening room. Nothing.

The story is as simple and as complex as Lord of the Rings. You have your essential struggle between two warring civilizations over a precious substance, on a planet with its own set of people and otherworldly creatures, all in a sparse but almost eternal landscape that Villeneuve renders as though this was his vision of Lawrence of Arabia. You have a hero, Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet again, and perfectly suited for his part, better than Kyle McLachlan ever was even though McLachlan was the same age as Chalamet when he played the part), and his story is the template of how a boy becomes a man. Joseph Campbell could not have written a better journey. We only get to see him at the start of his journey as he battles internal struggles and betrayals and external monsters and the unforgiving climate of Arrakis in order to find some form of safety for himself and his mother as he makes his next move.

I have nothing negative to say about Dune. Not one thing. Even at a patience-straining two and a half hours, I felt it could have been longer. Then again, this is the first of a trilogy, so of course, the entire length of Chapter One seems to be the prelude to a much larger, cosmic fight. Villeneuve has created something three-dimensional, magical, alluring, and yet he still grounds it in its own reality. Nothing seems fake or plastic — a risk many epics take and only the aforementioned Lord of the Rings has passed with flying colors. Nope — not even the Star Wars franchise has been able to replicate this. That story, which could have been ripped off of Herbert’s own work, did have its own dazzling effects of its time. The camera movement during the final battle of the first/fourth movie is a sequence to die for, over and over again. But in terms of characters, plot motivation, and relations, that movie was as cardboard as a cloak and dagger movie from 100 years ago. I could catch visual glimpses from previous movies (Arrival and Blade Runner 2049) filtering in but never intruding. The conflict and its stakes look dangerously real. This, in essence, is Herbert’s novel, intact.

An artistic rendering of a Wendigo

I would not associate Scott Cooper with the horror genre. In a directing career spanning five movies, all of his previous four have dealt with crime and redemption, and the choices men make which haunt them throughout. His latest, the much-delayed Antlers (I remember seeing the trailer for Antlers almost always following St Maud in November of 2019, before the pandemic), seems to be two movies sandwiched into one. On one side we have a domestic situation where a wayward father seems to be abusing one of his two sons; the elder befriends a teacher with a past who connects with his pain and wishes to help. On the other, we get the supernatural element of the movie — hence the title — and this is the part that works in some ways while doesn’t in others. In the middle, we get the tale of the Wendigo which also gets to feature as the movie’s opening quote, and the requisite Native American character (Graham Greene) who enters the plot to dispense some exposition of what the characters are up against.

As a whole, I will say that Antlers is better than its story should be. Its mood is as bleak as it comes, and it seems that its Oregon setting never sees the sun come out, ever. The woods form a backdrop that seems dense enough. Where I wasn’t sold was in the creature itself, and how its dark legacy passes through to humans, in essence, corrupting them. It seems that perhaps this may have had a little of the allegorical but the movie never plays it with fantasy, but straight. Scenes in which the tragic father meets an unfortunate transformation are painful to watch and rival (but don’t surpass) the werewolf scene in An American Werewolf in London. The dread element is intense and foreboding. However, characters start behaving like tropes in every horror movie known to man — so much that at one point, more than once, several players do the tired, “Is anyone there?” line, and one character literally exists to die soon later. To add insult to injury, the movie never seems to know when to stop but continues to barrel ahead as if this were a long, drawn-out gunfight, instead, replacing guns with a Final Girl and a Creature.

I wish that Cooper had taken a different route with Antlers. There are two excellent movies inside one that looks and feels mashed up but is far from unwatchable. The relation that grows between the boy (Jeremy T. Thomas) and Final Girl Jeri Russell is poignant and deserved better. Her relationship with her actor-brother Jesse Plemons suggests more than what it ultimately reveals. Had the lore of the wendigo been less supernatural and closer to “wendigo psychosis” I would have enjoyed it better. As it stands, Antlers is imperfect, stilted, but fans of folk horror who also saw Ben Wheatley’s eco-horror In the Earth (which also has its own folk thrown in) will sit back and be repulsed in a good way.

Titane: Movie Review

Here we have a movie that exists within its own logic. Julia Ducournau’s follow-up feature to her debut, 2016 movie Raw dives even deeper into the discoveries of unusual tastes and slathers itself in it as though it were a sow and its playground was a foot of densely packed mud. Many of you will, upon sitting through a screening of Titane, feel repulsed by what you are about to see on screen. I recall that while sitting in the Walter Reade Theater during the screening. of the aforementioned Raw during Rendezvous with French Cinema a solid 25 % of the audience walked out, their faces visibly nauseated. One woman, in particular, was so incensed by the movie she stood up in a fury from her well-placed seat which was the near center of the auditorium, pointed at the screen, and shrieked, “C’est film est merde! Merde!” spat on the floor, and ran out, a contained storm of indignation muttering to herself while we continued to watch the movie, unfazed.

Eh, sometimes shit happens even in Film Societies. People have strong reactions, and Durcounau’s movies are not for the faint of heart. Like Raw, Titane also follows a young woman. However, where Raw was kind of a coming of age, Titane is a little more elliptical. A little girl named Alexia is riding along with her father in his car when she makes the mistake of unbuttoning her seatbelt. Her father, upon trying to get her to put her seatbelt on again, gets into a hrorific car accident. Miraculously, both survive, but Alexia undergoes cranial surgery to replace missing bone and gets a titanium implant. It’s safe to say that she changes dramatically. Years later, a grown Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) works as a showgirl for a car show. When an admirer comes to meet her outside, she responds to his kisses by jamming her rather long hairpin into his neck and holding his spasmodic body until he dies in her arms.

It’s here where Titane the movie rears an extremely bloodthirsty head. Alexia inexplicably and gruesomely dispatches everyone who comes within three feet of her. The ferocity in which she commits these murders is only magnified by how unemotional she is, how disconnected. Adding to this, she starts having sex with what can only be described as a car while sitting in the back seat. What this may imply is left unexplored. In the meantime, Durcournau has Alexia escape from the authorities after she’s demolished the entire cast, and again, it’s not the fact that she is able to do so, but the way she goes about it that makes even this sequence the more disturbing. To make it simple: she sees the picture of a missing teenage boy she vaguely resembles. Because she will get caught looking the way she does, she not just cuts her hair to look like a boy but bashes her face into a sink to deform her nose and avoid detection.

From here on, Titane takes a complete nosedive. I won’t spoil it much — incredibly, what I wrote can only be considered a prologue to the real events of the movie. Titane moves from a woman on the run to a woman living like a man amongst men who display the glaring characteristics of toxic masculinity. At the same time, Alexia’s change into a boy also brings another change within her own body, and it’s one that the movie asks you to believe would happen undetected. However, as the story progresses and its own premise gets stretched out to its extremes, I realized that this is not a regular thriller about a female serial killer on the loose but something else entirely. As strange as this movie already is, Durcournau seems to be trying to tell us that sometimes human connections can arise from the weirdest of places. Alexia, now going by Adrien, seems to relinquish her need to escape and with great resistance settle into someone else’s life, even when she knows she may be discovered at any point. Alexia’s relationship to the man who was the real Adrien’s father (Vincent Lindon, in a balls-out committed performance, equal parts damaged goods and narcissistic he-man) dances the delicate territory of the incestual and the thuggish. It is cringey as all get-out, but Durcournau has her own agenda in mind.

I admire challenging movies. I want to see movies that dare to go to places that most of us wouldn’t. The entire time we follow Alexia on her journey and wonder what’s next. Knowing her penchant for horrific violence from the whirlwind intro, the long pause that follows might be its own mediation on a situation of symbolic gestation (still not a spoiler). Durcournau artfully drops Alexia into the most ironic of situations, and even then all we can think of is, will she escape — and there is that hairpin. We don’t even know how someone like her can have a future, but Durcournau pulls the rug even on her. In the end, once her purpose is complete, it becomes clear that perhaps this was never her story proper, but someone else who needed a son. In this, Titane becomes an exercise in misdirection, and that makes Durcournau’s movie unique.

The Last Duel: Film Review

To be quite honest, a movie with the title The Last Duel doesn’t conjure up images of 14th Century British history. No, in my mind, Tom Cruise pretending to educate Japanese Samurai on how to be more “samurai” comes to mind, with its own barrage of the White savior coming to help a lesser race on how it should act and think and ultimately, live (and if that isn’t American Imperialism at its worst…). However, once I realized this was Ridley Scott’s latest incursion into historical epics complete with sword fights and massive battle sequences, I was sold. If there is anyone who can turn any historical or quasi-historical event and spin it into gold, it’s Scott. Heck–I’ll even watch a bad Scott movie and he’s made a few of them in his six decades as a movie director.

I have a sneaking sensation that Scott has, at one time or another, watched Akira Kurosawa’s movies — notably, Yojimbo, and I’ll get into that in a bit, You see, The Last Duel touches on an obscure piece of history that unless the average person might not know of. In 1386, Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) challenged his squire and former friend Jacques le Gris (Adam Driver) to a duel to the death following accusations that Le Gris had raped his wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer), the last of a series of insults that could be resolved in no other way. WE later learn, should Le Gris win the duel, then Marguerite will be whipped naked in front of the entire public and burned alive. This is, obviously, not a happy affair.,

Scott then pulls us back — way back — to when Carouges and Le Gris were on more friendly terms. Even then, the movie depicts Carrouges as inherently noble by association and birth (albeit if it is on a lower level). On the other hand, Le Gris seemingly through no fault of his own rises up the ranks to be Count Pierre d’Alençon’s, right-hand man. It is this unlikely series of events that posits both men in increasingly adversarial positions. When Carrouges marries Marguerite, he intends to link himself to a higher position. However, this also gets taken away from him once d’Alençon grants this portion of land. To make matters worse, Le Gris also become a form of a manager to a fort that had been in the Carrouges’ family for generations. The last straw, what pushes Carrouges over the edge, is the claim that Marguerite makes to him that Le Gris raped her one morning while she was alone in their home as he was away on business.

This is a lot to unpack, but Scott makes it easy to understand with the movie’s deft writing and the clear exposition of the situation. Because Scott has divided The Last Duel into three chapters, we do not get to see the rape in the movie’s first third. Marguerite, the reason the duel even happens, remains a somewhat decorative figure in the background. We mainly get Carrouges’ account of the indignities he has been subjected to, and by all means, we do believe him.

Once we get into the second and third chapters, the movie starts to become something of a puzzle. Le Gris tells his own story and places himself as a lovable rogue who through no fault of his own found himself earning the favors of Philippe. When he gets introduced to Marguerite in a diplomatic meeting after he and Carrouges have fallen out of friendship, their kiss becomes a little more than just a kiss, and we see the faintest expression draw itself upon Marguerite’s face. This is a stark contradiction from the movie’s previous segment where she and Le Gris met, yes, but nothing of the nature that might indicate anything more than a polite kiss transpired.

Scott has the difficult task of filming Marguerite’s rape and because this is a movie that gives us three different accounts, we will have two very different accounts of what exactly happened. Le Gris’ account paints a Marguerite who wasn’t herself putting too much of a fight but simply allowed the incident to happen. Marguerite’s version, on the other hand, comes last, and when she begins to tell her story from start to finish, we finally get to see a woman not only diminished because of the times she lived in, but one who gets to stand up, use her voice, even if the very act may condemn her to a horrible death. She doesn’t simply stand by and watch Le Gris and Carrouges become adversaries; she is a strong advisor who knows how to use diplomacy to her advantage. It is telling how, in a dance Carrouges that follows her meeting to Le Gris, he may see a woman flirting with him; she is warning her husband about him the entire time.

And then the rape scene arrives, and it is truly horrifying. Her revelation, instead of instilling a protective nature in Carrouges, inflames his bruised masculinity even more. In Carrouges’ mind, his enemy has taken everything from him–even his wife, the ultimate humiliation. He even goes as far as to blame Marguerite herself, an action that hits closer to home even today. Marguerite, however, will not be silenced, and while the entire confession/accusation becomes a scandal, while her personal life gets exposed down to the last, most intimate details, she remains headstrong and defiant.

The duel of the title is the movie’s highlight. Here is where Scott lets all the anger of his hurt female, and the passive women that pepper the entire movie–Count Philippe’s wife, Marguerite’s sister and mother-in-law, the King’s own wife–echo that. This fight is because one woman stood up when countless others have not. This is no attempt to create a movie conscious of its need to tell a movie where the woman is at the center and thus appease feminists in general. The latter scenes slant heavily towards giving women a voice, no other character voices the acceptance of how women had to allow and withstand being trampled upon by the men of their time than Harriet Walker’s Nicole de Buchard. An evil mother-in-law at the start, she comes out of that shell and reveals to Marguerite how she is one of many women who have been suffered abuse in silence because they simply do not carry any power when power lies in the hands of men. If anything, this is the movie’s central message: to give us a mirror into the precarious position women of all classes had (which sus see how awful the time, and to see how little things have changed despite the march of time and feminism.

Bergman Island: Film Review

Director Mia Hansen-Löve tackles the topic of young love from the perspective of her own life experience in this very meta-narration that also pays homage to Ingmar Bergman.

It is a well-known belief that writers go back to the well of their own experiences to create their stories. For someone like myself who has read countless books and seen the works of many directors, I would be inclined to believe that this saying is true more than not. Even writers of science-fiction, horror, and fantasy will filter true-life events or experiences through the lens of the fantastic in order to narrate a compelling story.

Mia Hansen-Löve’s stories tend to walk the path of delicate character studies that give us glimpses of people handling romance and personal dramas without too much intensity, or at least, the right amount of pathos. Bergman Island, her first film in five years (to have a US premiere) focuses on a married couple, Chris and Tony, who happen to be filmmakers (played by Vicki Krieps and Tim Roth). They have come to Farö, the Scandinavian island where Ingmar Bergman filmed most of his iconic work and is also screening one of Tony’s movies.

Tony happens to be an admirer of Bergman’s work. Chris, however, is a bit ambivalent (although both engage in a lengthy conversation about the auteur’s movies while rooming in the place where he filmed Scenes from a Marriage and joking that “this is the same bed where [the movie’s stars] slept on). She uses the trip as a means to do a little creative writing herself and brainstorm an outline for a screenplay. While doing so, she misses some of the island’s offerings, like the “Bergman Safari”. In the interim, she meets a local, Hampus (Hampus Nordenson), a film student who takes her on a tour of the small island.

It doesn’t seem to amount to much, but once Chris [mostly] completes her story, she shares it with Tony. In her story, a young woman named Amy (Mia Wasikowska) meets and falls in love with Joseph (Anders Danielsen Lie); however, a series of events has Joseph breaking Amy’s heart. All throughout Chris’ narration, Tony continues to either interrupt her or simply, not be engaged enough and resolves that he cannot help her end her story.

Bergman Island, like Hansen-Löve’s movies, meanders in a way that engrosses the viewer, I don’t recall wondering where was the story going — I was simply rapt by the bubble of gentle energy that she’d imbued her movie. I had let it take me along for the ride, enjoying the location dropping (“Here is where Bergman filmed the ___ scene in Persona.”), followed by a humourous conversation about Bergman’s ability to be a father and a filmmaker at the same time. The island’s peculiarities and its people, who also sub in as minor characters in her film, were a clever touch.

Where the movie also drew me in was in watching what seemed to be Hansen-Löve share with me what it must be like to be married to a film director of equal prestige (and longer career). The parallels couldn’t be clearer: Olivier Assayas has been making movies since the mid-80s and is internationally recognized for his own vision of cinema. Like Tony, he also doubles the age of Hansen-Löve. I can’t but help wonder if the couple in the movie is a mirror to their real-life counterpart. It very well might be, because how else would the director create something that seems so intimate and also, so delicate, like a lost love?

And how clever for Hansen-Löve, to pull a little bit of metafiction onto the viewer, a thing she has never done before. I won’t spoil it for you, but it pretty much mirrors the last scene of Persona. Bergman Island may be as light and gentle as a breeze, but when viewed, it will linger as an incursion into the creative mind of its own director who tackles not only the ghost of a great director, but also her own past, and in this way, finds her own voice.

When Reality Cracks: the Ominous Surreality of Lamb

This one is going to be a mess for me to write about. How can I comment about Valdimar Johansson’s debut movie Lamb, a movie that begs to be disclosed and analyzed from all angles, without ruining it for anyone who has not yet seen it and even if they take a bit to come to, would like to? The trailer, seen on TV, is a bit much already and gives away just enough before it becomes a spoiler in itself. All I can say is, go see it, or rent it once it comes out on streaming, pay no mind to any trailers, any reviews, any videos, and let it happen, untainted by bias. The less you know about this movie, the better off you will be.

Look, parenting is hard. I am not a direct parent per se but have assisted in the task. The events in Lamb, as off the limb as they are, happen to two people who not only lost a child but desperately want to be parents. However, Lamb does not start in this manner. Much like the fellow Icelandic movie A White, White Day, Lamb begins in dread, silence, and complete isolation. Instead of a car driving to an unsuspecting destiny across a foggy landscape, we get a married couple of sheep farmers, Maria (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Gudnason), moving in near-silence about their days as they tend to their sheep and horses. There is a monotony about their actions, similar to the monotony of the landscape at the start of A White, White Day, that conveys an empty hole.

The event that takes the movie into its dark fable at its center occurs fairly early during the movie. We don’t get to see it come to life, but Maria’s and Ingvar’s facial expressions, which navigate the scope from perplexed to the kind that can only come after witnessing a miracle, tell us all we need to know. It’s the decision that follows shortly after that then drives the story. The lengths to which both Maria and Ingvar will go to not only act as this were the most quotidian thing in the world but to also, protect it from any outside intrusion, becomes Lamb‘s driving force. Oh, but if only they knew how far the repercussions from their actions will go…

This is the type of movie that viewers will either get or they will not. Its concept seems far-fetched, but switch the “gift” that Maria and Ingvar receive to let’s say… something less strange, and you may even say this could be a case of kidnapping, which by default creates an imbalance. Maria’s behavior, more so than Ingvar, is extremely telling in how protective she becomes, how far she is willing to fill the imbalance in her own life. To see a woman devolve from an otherwise unassuming farmer to ruthless killer in one visually jarring scene made all the crueler by the vastness of its surroundings and how the camera lingers shortly after as Maria performs methodic disposal of evidence is to see a performance that moves from sanity into much greyer, nebulous lines.

Then you see an outsider, revealed to be a family relative, who witnesses this act of brutality (with nods to the violence that men inflict upon defenseless animals, as seen previously in the 2020 documentary Gunda) and infiltrates Maria’s and Ingvar’s house and speaks for the audience. That is, right up until he himself decides to take matters into his hands (in one of the movie’s more chilling sequences) and finds that as bizarre as it may seem, he also has to accept whatever nightmare reality has invaded the real world. Perhaps in avoiding this action he gets spared the more bizarre comeuppance that transpires in the movie’s veer into cosmic tragedy and renders the family unit to shreds.

If Lamb has any message, it would be simply: be careful what you claim as your own. Maybe even more succinctly: respect nature; don’t force nurture. What might come back claiming its own might be just as unforgiving as you were with an animal who also couldn’t experience motherhood.

Daniel Craig concludes his tenure in his best Bond ever in No Time to Die

All good things come to an end. Daniel Craig has, for 15 years, has come to personify what the concept of Bond signifies to the lovers of the spy genre. He’s come into the part with the baggage of not being “talk, dark, and handsome” enough — despite being 5 feet 11 inches. How dare Craig, fair and up to then not a bona fide star despite his starting role in Spielberg’s Munich, take a part that sacred cows like Connery, Moore, Dalton, and Brosnan had made a part of their own image? I recall reading the outrage the Brits were involved in when Craig was, in the early 2000s, involved in once he was the front-runner for the part. You would have thought he had single-handedly assassinated the Queen Mother herself.

However, there he was, starting in Casino Royale, and resuscitating a franchise that had all but become stale, broken, tired. There he was, a new agent in the rough getting trained by M to earn his license to kill, which leads him into the web of corruption heralded Le Chiffre, while falling tragically in love with Vesper Lynd. He would continue his narrative in the somewhat flawed Quantum of Solace, redeem the movie’s slight faux pas in the one-two punch of Skyfall (easily the current’s second best entry) and its immediate follow-up Spectre. Over the course of these movies Craig basically brought the audiences and earned unanimous praise. Here wasn’t just an actor playing the part, this was Bond incarnate: rash and ready for anything in his first appearance, steely and perhaps even out of control by Skyfall.

It was only appropriate that if Craig’s narrative as 007 — a number that, and this is not a spoiler, is just that — the writers would have to come up with not just a thrilling adventure drenched in travelogue and elaborate set pieces but something meaty, heavy. Dense. The plot of No Time to Die has not much different from the plot of every other Bond movie. We get a bad guy (Rami Malek) whom we see right from the get-go paying a visit to a young Madeleine Swann (Coline Defaud as a girl, Lea Seydoux as an adult) and her mother in their remote cabin. The visit is not exactly friendly — after all, he is the bad guy, and he has a mission. Madeleine survives this incident, but it fast forwards her to the recent past when she is now living with Bond, who since the events of Spectre has retired. Still mourning the loss of Vesper, Bond travels to her grave, only to be ambushed by Spectre assassins. Bond suspects Madeleine of betrayal and sends her packing as an act of self preservation.

A few years later, a Russian scientist developing a bioweapon under M’s orders gets kidnapped for (obviously, what else?) nefarious purposes. The goal seems a bit ill-defined, but we all know anyone developing such a terrible technology can only be harnessing it for carnage at a global level. No Time to Die then becomes a race to find the scientist, which leads Bond to Cuba with Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) and a new CIA agent Paloma (Ana de Armas) as well as his own replacement, 007 (Lashanna Lynch) to a meeting of the spies.

However, No Time to Die has other plans in store so of course the story takes a few left turns. In doing so, it brings in a much more human element that will definitely surprise anyone who goes to see the movie. Rarely has any Bond movie dealt with Bond’s character as a man who could have a true motive to live — or in this case, to stop — as this movie does. It is a wicked setup that becomes an even stronger factor than the one that has now come to define the series, that of the weapon for Mass destruction. How the movie resolves it is masterful, and all the praise should go to writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and especially Phoebe Waller-Bridge (herself the writers of both Fleabag and Killing Zoe), who brings in a much needed female energy with her dry, comic wit. Fans of her work will be able to spot her influence on the characters, especially in the language, which is sharp as duck and darkly funny.

So, here we have it, the end of the line for Daniel Craig and his version of Bond. All plot lines will get tied up by its end. References to past Bond films going all the way to Doctor No, Goldfinger, and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service are all over the place. Bond has matured to the point of exhaustion and Craig’s performance never feels tired, but mellowed. Make no mistake — he can still be ruthless, but you do see him take hits and feel the stun. He’s not undefeatable. He’s human. And that is a good thing, especially for a spy movie in which far too often it’s heroes are practically preordained to survive no matter how dire the circumstances. Craig’s version might end here, but the character, the essence of cool, remains.

Three Strikes: The Djinn, Malignant, and Aterrorizados (Terrified)

I hate writing about movies I disliked and my opinions seem to be the only ones that stand apart from the rest. It makes me feel as though perhaps I’m the only one who failed to glean the argument and the movie, which I deem to be bad, or shall I say, flawed, is a product whose essence simply escaped me.

Such is the case with these three horror movies that come with enormous praise from critics and moviegoers alike. Given the pandemic, I saw each and every one of them back to back during the weekend as I write this. As I do in movies, I went in reading no reviews, seeing no video commentary, no Chris Stuckmann or spookyastronauts on Youtube. I simply wanted to get my own gist of these films, see what the buzz was about, and if in fact, they were worth the hype.

Careful what you wish for and always perform a banishing, just in case.

First in stop, The Djinn. This movie came out earlier in the year in virtual cinema (I don’t think it was technically released into theaters but I may be incorrect as cinemas were still in early 2021 playing to limited crowds). The Djinn, directed by David Charbonier and Justin Powell and starring young Ezra Dewey as Dylan, tells the story of a deaf-mute boy who one night finds a book hidden in the deeper depths of his father’s new house. The book seems to be a book of shadows, and anyone awake in the occult will know what those are supposed to be. In horror movie territory, you should always beware of books of shadows. Always, without the slightest doubt. Any one of these will always elicit a portal into a dark world full of horrifying creatures eager to do unspeakable things to an unwitting person conducting a conjure, and the last thing anyone wants to do is open Pandora’s box and unleash holy hell unto the sleeping world, eh?

Now, I’m not saying that if you conjure a being into this world you might not get a surprise, but that’s a bit much information, and this is a movie review, NYCcritic. Focus. Open your occult blog someplace else. Dylan, wanting to I guess play with magick, conjures up a djinn. He does the spell in a rather, semi-accurate sort of way, the kind of manner the witch inside of me went, eh, well, works if you don’t give a fuck but I wouldn’t do that. Nothing happens. Except, something happens — Dylan just doesn’t know it yet.

You see, Dylan in the movie unleashes a little more than a horror — he sets free an evil spirit, a djinn. For those of you curious about what a djinn is, here is a link to where you can read more about it. Now. I know that a djinn is a neutral supernatural entity that can be employed for good as well as evil. The movie, however, decides to go with the latter, and from there on, we see Dylan battling this shadowy creature that has let’s say, vaguely sinister intentions set on Dylan, his father, and I guess the entire movie if that were the case,

I’m torn with this one. Is it good or is it bad? I don’t want to trash anything because again, to each their own cinema, but to me, The Djinn is okay in terms of overall ambiance — spooky, but not memorable — and minimal in its construction which works to its advantage. On the other end, the movie simply never questions its characters, motives, and simply establishes a setup so basic it may have almost been phoned in. I’m not saying this approach is incorrect; what do I know about being behind the camera. However, I get it — movie makers want to impress, especially in their first outing. The horror genre is where almost everyone from David Lynch to Robert Eggers got started. It’s the easiest way to impress. It’s where a director establishes style and mood and guarantees a footing in the film world. What I didn’t quite get was the simplistic view of this story. Perhaps in another, less demanding time, perhaps in the world of Jacques Tourneur, something like this would have been taken at face value. It is entirely possible to conjure up a being that has less than noble interests with you, It’s just that the movie never questions anything that happens; it sets an event that in turn sets events in motion that eventually unspool the entire thing, and to be, while it seems okay… it just doesn’t resonate.

Perhaps the movie escaped me. I had a similar experience while watching The Endless, an indie horror movie that was much-lauded upon its 2018 run. I just did not see anything new or different, or even campy and self-aware; all I saw was a rehash of every direct-to-HBO-or-Showtime horror movie from the 80s that I managed to see back then. The Djinn has the ambiance it needs, some jaw-dropping effects, solid performances from its small cast, and some truly good effects… it just lacks a special bang to it. I could be wrong.

When I heard about Malignant I was interested because I’m a James Wan fan and I’ve seen his Saw and Insidious franchises (at least, the ones he penned and directed before the sequels became sillier). Sinister creeped me the hell out of my skin for a good while, and I don’t say that often. Since I wasn’t yet going to movies but streaming at home for pandemic reasons, I figured I would see it in the comfort of my home with the lights off for added horror movie ambiance.

Once the movie started, I somehow thought, “Well — this is different,” referring to the bombastic music score and its overtly Gothic feel. Once I saw the movie’s prologue in which doctors are trying to perform some form of control on a wild subject, I kept getting flashbacks to House on Haunted Hill from 1999 with its massive psych-ward and seemingly insane doctor. I went, “Okay, a lot to unpack here with whatever the heck is going on behind that translucent curtain but I’m sold.”

Then the movie leaps forward to the present. The aptly named and very pregnant Madison Lake (Annabelle Wallis, no relation to the doll) — because why wouldn’t she, it’s a relatable name — returns home after being sick on the job. Her husband Derek (Jake Abel) is abusive, and we witness this by seeing Derek lash out at her with so much rage that he bashes her head against a wall. Out of nowhere, a shadowy figure like a Deux ex Machina intervenes and by doing so, it saves Madison from becoming a statistic of domestic violence. However, she loses her child, and Derek winds up very much dead.

It’s not long after Madison returns home that strange things start happening not to her, but around her. She seems to be “seeing” murders that are occurring all over town and every murder is somehow connected to her. It turns out that Madison was adopted at birth. This leads to a whole slew of discoveries about Madison’s past is in relation to the unseen killer that is connected to her. The movie drops a massive plot twist somewhere past the half way time, and then it sort of becomes a free-for-all, a generic battle of good versus evil that in turn becomes rather silly and just too predictable.

In concept, Malignant works, although the exploration of a darker half seems to be the mood lately in horror movies. I keep hearing how good it was, and how people simply loved it. I seem to be a band apart. It’s not that I disliked it; it’s that I felt that while the movie on one end looks gorgeous — it has pristine lighting and superficial mood for ages — it throws so many disparate elements that it took me right out of its story. When you can see the man behind a curtain a mile away and early into the movie you know you have a problem. Malignant is as loud and in your face as a police siren cranked up to deafening decibels. It never rests, leaving you totally exhausted and with an hour still left on the clock. Also, it’s just not that scary: had Wallis played Madison with a little restraint I would have accepted it more. As it stands, she plays Madison with exclamation points from start to finish.

Such is the tone for Wan’s movie. I’ll probably; be in the minority and it doesn’t matter, anyway, the movie is set to make its budget cost and then some and I can predict there will be some sequel to its story.

Lastly, there is the Argentinian movie Terrified (Aterrados) which has been floating around Amazon Video for almost four years now since its 2017 release overseas [it never had a US premiere]. Terrified tells the story of people in a neighborhood possessed by something truly horrifying and the investigation that follows. I’m, again, perfectly okay with the concept. A haunted neighborhood? Sign me in. The problem lies when the director tries to lay his stamp on what you are seeing and tries so hard to scare the living daylights out of you that he throws all but the kitchen sink to see what sticks and what doesn’t.

I won’t lie; the first scene of Terrified was rather intense (even when you could see the patchwork special effects that helped it happen). Another sequence involving the return of a boy that goes missing is a real steal. It’s also a long sequence, filled with unease and nervous silence and people wondering how the heck and this (whatever is taking place) be even happening.

It’s when the movie goes into its investigative part that the story falls apart at the seams and just does not recover. Featuring three of the worst players I have ever seen — one of them with a mangled American accent — they attempt to resolve the dilemma of the hauntings by setting up shop within the three homes. It’s no secret what comes next, but the manner that director Demian Regna executes them seems too loose to even call scary.

Terrified somehow has made it to the list of movies too scary to watch as proven by science. I’m going to have to ask science to reconsider its findings. That’s all I really have to say about this.

Trying to survive in silence: A Quiet Place 2

It just occurred to me that in all the years that I’ve been writing my barely-read, in-the-shadows reviews for movies ranging from the oldest to the latest that I never wrote an official one for John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place from 2018. So, because its sequel is far superior to the other, which cements Krasinski as a keen director of Hitchcockian suspense, I’ll also include the first one in this short little piece that predictably, no one will most likely read and will float in cyberspace forever or until the site goes down.

When we start A Quiet Place 2, we meet the family at the center of its streamlined, minimal plot. Still trying to reach some form of safe harbor, Evelyn Abbott (Emily Blunt) her son Marcus (Noah Jupe), and deaf-mute daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds) arrive at a fenced-off area in s steel foundry. Unaware that it is a minefield of booby traps, Evelyn accidentally sets one off. As they run towards for shelter from the extremely sound-sensitive aliens that now roam the Earth, Marcus accidentally steps over a bear trap in one of the movie’s more shocking, gruesome scenes.

When the Abbotts reach safety, they run into an old friend, Emmett (Cillian Murphy). Emmett, a lone-wolf survivor who maks it clear their presence will attract more danger, tells the Abbotts they cannot stay. In the meantime, Marcus has been listening to snippets of “Beyond the Sea” playing over and over. Regan realizes that the song’s continuous playback is code to a safe haven. Not wanting to wait around, Regan takes off on her own to find the source of this transmission and use her cochlear implant as a weapon against the nasty aliens that have upended the entire planet.

More often that not, sequels to movies tend to meander in the middle, not quite concluding as much as advancing the plot to the finale that will surely arrive with all the bells and whistles to satisfy its audience. A Quiet Place 2 is the rare sequel/second part that is a massive improvement over the excellent first. While the first movie painted a warped picture of domestic life after a doomsday scenario, A Quiet Place 2 expands on that by giving us a front-row seat to Day Zero when the aliens first arrive. The scene is as gripping as it gets and establishes the tone of the movie. Grounding the story with an action sequence that is a tour-de-force of visual narration, the Abbott family, and Emmett, witness their sunny day go to hell in moments that seem to be too fast to digest, and quite on the spot transform from befuddled spectators to unrelenting survivors.

If the scene might falter just a bit, is in the self-awareness of moving in silence the characters exhibit, but I was okay with that, the same way I was okay with the obvious plot device of the upturned nail on the creaky barn stairs of A Quiet Place. No story has to be perfect to make sense. Even Hitchcock was aware of that and gave next to no explanation on why Annie simply vanishes after the attack scene on the children at the Bodega Bay school in The Birds. He simply wrote her out in a memorable scene and let the other actors (Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor, and Veronica Cartwright) do the heavy lifting.

Speaking of Hitchcock, and I know this is my third mention of him, Krasinski has, with his sequel, created a nerve-wracking movie of sheer tension. There was plenty of this in the first movie, particularly when Evelyn makes the painful acquaintance of the aforementioned nail and then delivers her baby as her husband Lee (Krasinski) rushes to the barn to save her from a creature she has unwittingly attracted.

Krasinski outdoes himself when he splits the family unit up. [And who didn’t see this one coming?] Regan, who emerges as the badass of the movie, leaves the safety of her surroundings against the warnings of Emmett to search for the source of the radio transmission. Evelyn departs to a nearby town to get supplies for her family and leaves Marcus, and her baby, behind in the safety of the foundry. How Krasinski goes by unspooling these separate plot threads into one cohesive entity is what suspense should be like. It reminded me of the type of movies Brian De Palma used to do, in which the action transpired in more than one location. While Krasinski never employs long panning or tracking shots like De Palma, he delivers nail-biting thrills that go right over the edge without taking the movie off of its rails.

A Quiet Place 2 is available on Paramount + and most online streaming services,