Spectre

Directed by: Sam Mendes
Starring:  Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux

spectre posterJames Bond is not supposed to be a warm and fuzzy character.  If you read Ian Fleming’s novels, Bond is cold and ruthless. He’s the good guy because the bad guys are Soviet Communists, or mad scientists with scary weapons, and generally further down the spectrum of evil.

What I really like about Daniel Craig as James Bond is that he can dial up the charm and suaveness when he has to, but he can also switch it off to reveal the cold rationality of the literary Bond.   I don’t suppose I’ve ever really thought of Bond as an assassin, however, so when characters in Spectre labeled him as such, it just didn’t sit well with me.  It’s definitely covered within his license to kill, but it seems so….mercenary and overly simplistic of a label. And it kind of makes him sound like a villain.

On the whole, Spectre was ok, but not nearly as good as Skyfall.   It all depends on what you’re looking for in the film.  If you want visually spectacular action sequences in picturesque Europe and fantastic explosions, it delivers.  Fight scenes in a helicopter?  Check.  Car chase with Bond in his trademark Aston Martin?  Yep.  An attractive woman in a curve-hugging evening gown?  Absolutely.  Great theme song?  Not this time…which is where they might have lost me….

I’ll admit I was tired when watching Spectre, and probably not attending to the plotline as closely as I should.  That said, I found a few elements unduly distracting.  First – the plot seemed a bit choppy, and Bond didn’t really have a mission.  He had a personal vendetta against the leader of an evil organization and defeating this enemy would be for the greater good, but it still lacked impact.  Second – I have trouble taking Dave Bautista seriously as a Bond villain.  He’s been good in a couple of action films, but I’ll always think of him as one of HHH’s Evolution henchman stalking around the squared circle and throwing down a powerbomb or two.

Third, I think I was legitimately creeped out by the level of surveillance technology in the film.  I know I’m not paranoid to think we’re constantly being tracked, recorded, watched or listened to by all our personal technology devices, plus CC TV and whatever else is out there (probably camera drones). The information intelligence system advocated by C and his merry band of big data analysts – too realistic.  I know firsthand how much data marketers can collect on denizens of the interwebz opting in, logging in, and trading their privacy for free use of apps and screen savers.  Also, I was quite distracted that C was played by Moriarty from Sherlock (Andrew Scott).  Probably that’s not fair, but since Moriarty is an evil genius I completely distrusted him from the moment he entered the scene.  I also distrusted him because he was trying to replace the 00 program, but that really was a secondary consideration.

Finally, I was a little disappointed by the gadgets in the film.  Q’s mods to the Aston Martin were good for a bit of humor, but not super flashy.  On the flip side, I found the scanning port Q used to analyze the Spectre ring and connect it with past villains far-fetched (To be fair, I also consider the new scanning pads at the library that check out a whole pile of books at once without having to individually read ALL the barcodes far-fetched).  Also, Bond’s nemesis had a pretty lame torture device.  Not that I’d want that thing drilling into my noggin, but the clinical specificity of the device is nowhere near as exciting as a nuclear warhead threatening humanity if Bond doesn’t defuse it in 30 seconds.

If you:

  • Just want the basic Bond trifecta of fast cars, beautiful women and dirty martinis
  • Prefer a rogue mission and personal vendetta to following the rules
  • Have always enjoyed a peek into the bad guys’ lair and the shenanigans that ensue as the villains jockey for position and power

Put it in the queue!

However, if you:

  • Want a more charming and cuddly James Bond
  • Are already paranoid Big Brother and his evil international friends are watching you
  • Have read/watched so many other mystery/thriller/crime series you tend to get distracted by parallel elements, such as:
    • Moriarty = C
    • Rogue mission–>Mission Impossible, Harry Bosch, Harry Hole
    • Fusiform gyru–> Beate Lønn

Don’t put it in the queue.

Reviewer’s note:  Yes, I am a little obsessed with the novels of Jo Nesbø right now.  I have to at least finish The Snowman before the film comes out in 2017-ish.

The Awakening

Co-Written and Directed by: Nick Murphy
Starring: Rebecca Hall, Dominic West, Imelda Stauntonawakening poster.jpg

It’s been a while since I let Heather Purdum pick a scary movie for us to watch on Netflix, but The Awakening was a solid choice. The setting is England, 1921.  With the double whammy of WWI and influenza, many people lost loved ones.   As demand for mediums and spiritualists who could speak to the dearly departed increased, so did chicanery and charlatans.  Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) is having none of this, and fearlessly unmasks the fakers – whether their customers actually want them to or not.

Despite her fierce disbelief in restless spirits, Florence nearly turns down a request to debunk a potential haunting at a boys’ school.  Headmaster Robert Mallory (Dominic West) visits her office with a serious problem.  One of the boys at the school recently died, and the students insist the ghost killed him.  Furthermore, this ghost has regularly been appearing in the yearly group photo of students and teachers.

Finally persuaded to at least see the school, Florence packs up all her ghost-busting gear and travels to the school.  Incidentally, the school was once a private home, sold to the school after a tragedy befell the original owners.

The school itself is delightfully dark and dreary like only an old English manor can be.  Ten year old boys in sweaters and short pants cower around the school, dutifully waiting out the few days until a holiday break.  Florence sets up her cameras, energy meters, and a few human-detecting traps in the dormitory while the students camp out in another room.

Indeed, Florence gets a visitor that evening, pattering around the corridors and into a cupboard.  She also has an unsettling experience in one of the hallways – as if she is being observed and followed.  However, she’s still not convinced there’s a “real” ghost – and a few of the teachers and staff are exhibiting some suspicious traits and habits themselves.

The Awakening is aces at building up the creepy factor.  It will have you looking over your shoulder for a while – particularly if you’re wandering around a sprawling English mansion that may or may not have a ghost in residence.  Not only does the movie get the mood and atmosphere right, the cinematography is excellent and artistic.

Because the film is so invested in misdirection (like any good thriller should), the reactions and behaviors of the characters don’t always make sense.  However, all the pieces come together in the end.  (I had a fair idea of a couple of the big reveals somewhere around the middle of the film, but even then The Awakening still had a handful of secrets it kept until the end.)

If you:

  • Like a good British film, especially one set in the early 20th century
  • Have ever wanted to be a ghost hunter
  • Enjoy figuring out a mystery

Put it in the queue!

However, if you:

  • Are afraid of ghosts – even ones that want to comfort you, not hurt you
  • Are afraid of British schoolteachers
  • Are unduly paranoid about being watched/followed

Don’t put it in the queue.

Lucid Dream (2015)

lucid-dream_80092182Dreams, video game art, reincarnation, obsession, swordplay and a woman masquerading as a man.  That’s the gist of Lucid Dream, an eight-episode K-Drama I watched via Netflix.

Yeon-Hee (Lee Ji Ah), an art teacher, lives with her sister and niece.  As a favor, she dresses in a suit, hat and fake moustache to escort her niece to a father-daughter drawing competition at Lucid Games, where her sister works in the company coffee shop.  They win the competition with a beautiful portrait of a scene Yeon-Hee repeatedly experiences in a dream – she is a girl in a past era, and she is falling off a cliff.

The character strikes a chord with company president Soo-Hyun (Jin Ji Hee), who also frequently dreams about living in an ancient time and being separated from the woman he loves.  As he is currently trying to design a video game around his reoccurring dreams, he hires Yeon-Hee to work on the character graphics.  She does confess she’s not her niece’s father, but still mantains the gender masquerade by pretending to be the uncle instead.

On the job, Yeon-Hee has many obstacles to dodge.  In addition to staying in disguise (and significant confusion on which restroom she should be using at work), one of her supervisors flirts outrageously and she has several ridiculously tight timelines to meet.  If that wasn’t enough to give her anxiety, Soo-Hyun periodically accuses her of having stolen character costume designs and ideas from other sources.

Soo-Hyun almost gets a pass for his paranoia, as Yeon-Hee is literally bringing details from his dreams to life.  His dream self is a scholar who was accosted on a bridge by a gang of men, but saved by a long-haired ninja.  He eventually discovers the mysterious swordsman is actually a female, and falls in love with her.  Complications stand in their way, and their dream of a happy future may not come to pass – or may have to wait for another lifetime.

Lucid Dream was entertaining, but all the cuts back and forth from the “dream plot” to the current storyline were sometimes hard to follow.  Also, there are a couple of jealous characters you might love to hate.  I thought the artwork and costumes were gorgeous, as was the bamboo forest where Soo-Hyun’s dream self, Sang-Baek, learns to improve his swordfighting skills. Yeon-Hee’s niece also adds humor to several scenes…she is very expressive, especially when there is fried chicken on the line.

If you:

  • Don’t believe in reincarnation or fate
  • Have strong convictions that people in different social classes shouldn’t mix
  • Will stop at nothing to have your way

Don’t put it in the queue.

However, if you:

  • Have ever tried to solve a personal mystery
  • Believe the heart wants what the heart wants
  • Like plot twists

Put it in the queue!

 

Circle (2015)

Written and directed by:   Aaron Hann, Mario Miscione
Starring: Julie Benz, Mercy Malick, Carter Jenkins

circleIt’s a rare treat when I get to use a literary term like “theater of the absurd” when blogging.  If you’re unfamiliar with this particular genre, here’s a good description I found on Wikipedia: they…focus on human beings trapped in an incomprehensible world subject to any occurrence, no matter how illogical. The theme of incomprehensibility is coupled with the inadequacy of language to form meaningful human connections. According to Martin Esslin, Absurdism is “the inevitable devaluation of ideals, purity, and purpose.”

About ten minutes into the film Circle, I realized it was going to fall into this genre, but I also I understand why it’s classified as drama/sci-fi/horror – how else would you categorize a situation where 50 people are trapped in a room, lined up in two concentric rings?   The way the room is set up with everyone standing in a red circle around additional rings of red lights…you have no idea what’s happening.  They might all be contestants on the next big thing in game shows.

The characters themselves are clueless to how they got there or what their purpose in this room is…except that every two minutes a timer goes off and somebody gets zapped dead.  There doesn’t appear to be any rhyme or reason behind the zapping – with the exception of stepping out of your circle = you’re toast.

Most believe they’ve been abducted by aliens for some type of experiment, particularly a psychological one.  Are their abductors trying to determine the breaking point of the human psyche?  Measure terror?  Or is it some other test?

One of the emergent leaders of the group hypothesizes the experiment is to learn what humans value – particularly as the pattern of deaths appears to become less random and more apparent the remaining inhabitants have been – subconsciously or otherwise – voting on who gets the zap.

And here the morality play begins.  Presuming at least one person will be left standing, the first debate is if the pregnant woman and child should be spared since they have more life to live than the others.  Then comes the tide of judgements, discovery of lies, flaunting of prejudices and a boatload of rhetoric.

It is a fascinating exploration of American psychology – the characters are forced to confront how they truly rank the worth of others.  Should the solider live because he protected his nation, or die because he killed people in combat?  Should the illegal immigrant die because he can’t speak English and is potentially taking a job an American could have?  Should the lesbian live?  Should the cancer survivor die because she’s already received an extra lease on life and shouldn’t be greedy for more?  Should people over 50 just step off their circles to ensure they’re not taking up opportunities to survive that younger people with far fewer life experiences should have?

If these questions were answered relatively quickly and without obnoxious, repetitive commentary from the self-appointed leaders in the group…this wouldn’t be theater of the absurd.  Personally I am not a fan of this genre, and I would have gladly stepped out of my circle about halfway through the debate just so I didn’t have to listen to a couple of the characters snipe at each other.

If you:

  • Enjoy philosophical debate
  • Are intrigued by films where nearly all the scenes take place in one room
  • Can easily and comfortably rank order people by their social value

Put it in the queue!

However, if you:

  • Are easily bored by rhetoric
  • Already have significant paranoia about alien abduction or other conspiracy theories
  • Are having an existential crisis

Don’t put it in the queue.

Bosch, Season 1 (2015)

Created by: Michael Connelly, Eric Ellis Overmyer
Starring: Titus Welliver, Jamie Hector, Amy Aquino

bosch season 1Michael Connelly has written 20 Harry Bosch novels, and I’ve either read or listened to the first 19.  I’ve also read a number of Bosch-centric short stories.  I specifically signed up for Amazon Prime to watch the first season of Bosch.  Readers, you know what usually happens when I approach a film or series with high expectations…but Bosch was different.  I loved it and can’t wait for season two (March 11th!!)

But a little more about season one – we watched it during the ITQR hiatus.  At only ten episodes – and the pilot already viewed – we had to make the nine remaining last.  No “just one more episode” nonsense.

Blending plot lines from several novels – and weaving in characters from more – the first season of Bosch is a beautifully-cast treat.  Any changes made to characters aided cohesion rather than detracting.  For example – the original Bosch was a Vietnam War vet and getting a little long in the tooth by the most recent novels.  The series Bosch is a Gulf War vet.  If the series can’t leverage (or adapt) the novel Bosch’s prowess as a tunnel rat, who cares?

The series also does a good job of sprinkling in past and present romantic relationships as well as Bosch’s relationship with his teenage daughter Maddie (Madison Lintz), and illustrating how his sense of duty as a cop colors – or shadows – his personal life.

I actually never pictured Bosch as Titus Welliver, but Welliver adorns the loose cannon, not afraid to go off the reservation if it puts the bad guys where they belong attitude like a worn-in shoulder holster.  Listening to most of the books, I also never pictured his LAPD partner Jerry Edgar (Jamie Hector) as younger than Bosch – but again, that wasn’t a stumbling block.  I like Edgar better as portayed by Hector – a bit of a dandy, but smart and not as self-centered as he seemed in the books.

Other characters that totally nailed it:

  • Lance Reddick as Irvin Irving. I already liked Reddick’s work from John Wick and The Guest, and he is fantastic as the ultra-serious and politically savvy counterpoint to Bosch’s fast & loose style.  He humanizes Irving in a way the novels don’t until very late in the series.
  • Jason Gedrick as Reynard Waits. Creepy creeper!!
  • Amy Aquino as the tough but understanding Lt. Grace “Bullets” Billets

Mix all these great plotlines and characters with a background of cool jazz and the LA skyline, and you have a winning series!  Connelly may need to cut down on poker night with Castle and crank out a few more Bosch novels to ensure the series will be stocked for several seasons to come!

If you:

  • Are a rule-breaker
  • Enjoy seeing a new twist on an old plotline
  • Live for the typical shenanigans of Bosch (i.e. not following orders, getting suspended, listening to jazz while staring out the windows of his house in the hills

Put  it in the queue!

However, if you:

  • Expected a cameo by either the Lincoln Lawyer or Rachel Walling
  • Want more courtroom drama, less action
  • Don’t believe an ex can be a great ally

Don’t put it in the queue.

 

 

Minions (2015)

Directed by: Kyle BaldaPierre Coffin
Starring the Voices of: Pierre Coffin, Sandra BullockJon HammMichael Keaton

minons posterEver since Despicable Me, I have been obsessed with Minions.  My iPhone wallpaper:  Minion.  My computer wallpaper:  Minions.  I’ve also been known to send a variety of Minion memes to internal teammates at work when I need to switch it up from cat memes.  My day job generally prevents me from having much free time in the summer, so I had to wait and snatch up a copy of Minions the first weekend it was available via Redbox.

So what is the story of the minions prior to life with Gru?  Not as simple and hunky-dory as one would think!  These little yellow darlings learned quickly in the primordial soup their best bet for survival was to buddy up to the biggest baddie in the pond (or eventually on land).  Biggest baddie didn’t always mean “evil genius,” however, and the Minions perennially found themselves in search of a new boss when the old one befell a silly accident.  Survival of the fittest…

The minions can seemingly survive anything – even building their own community in a snowy cave (presumably in Siberia or someplace Arctic).  However, they can’t thrive without a boss to serve. Herein begins the epic journey of minions Kevin, Stuart and Bob.  These three travel quite far, eventually reaching New York in 1968.  They trade in their parkas for overalls pilfered from a clothesline, and get to work on the boss search.

Fortunately, they run across a TV ad for Villain-Con, where the baddies will be congregating in Orlando, FL, in just a few days!  With a lucky break catching a ride with a family on their way to Orlando, the trio of Minions seems to be closing in on mission accomplished.  Bob seals the deal by winning a challenge posed by mega-villain Scarlet Overkill.

Minions is at its best when it’s just minions being minions – running around willy-nilly in a department store, singing, pursuing bananas, applying for henchman jobs, being cheerfully goofy, making semi-nonsensical speeches, wandering into and out of history, emoting, laughing, doing their best to please the boss.   The entrance of Scarlet Overkill and her hubby Herb bog down the film.  Sure, they have cool gadgets…but Herb is boring and Scarlet is just mean.  She doesn’t have the despicable with a heart of gold appeal that Gru does, and you’re not sad to see her career as boss is short-lived.

This is definitely a good family film – it’s simply entertaining and cute, but it also has some cultural references adults will get too (believe it or not, the minions crashed both the moon landing and the famous Abbey Road album cover photo session).  Also don’t forget to watch it from the very beginning – you won’t want to miss the Minions singing the Universal theme song.

If you:

  • Have ever wanted to see a “Minion mic drop”
  • Were curious about the Minions’ origin story
  • BA-NA-NA

Put it in the queue!

However, if you:

  • Don’t condone hitchhiking (or bank robbing, or handheld rocket launchers)
  • Are scandalized by the idea of royal guards singing a version of “Hair” (from the musical of the same name) while hypnotized
  • Will literally be driven bananas trying to translate the Minions’ nonsense language

Don’t put it in the queue.

Sicario (2015)

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve

Starring: Emily BluntJosh BrolinBenicio Del Toro

sicarioSicario is a visually striking film.  I mean that in a good way – in that I liked some of the unusual but appealing and interesting camera shots.  This is not to say every scene is visually appealing – particularly the film’s intro – but directorial choices are impactful and humanizing nonetheless.

The two other films of Villeneuve’s that I have seen – Prisoners and Incendies – were also very serious and moderately to pretty damn depressing.  That said, I am not sorry I saw either of them.  Sicario toes a similar line.  It was well cast and dramatic, but cerebrally, it was a bad trip for me.

Agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is a modern FBI agent.  She’s investigating drug-related kidnappings in the American southwest when she and her team encounter a situation that is more complicated – and dangerous – than initially meets the eye.  Rather than a complex debrief, Kate is invited to volunteer for a task force run by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) to help shake up the drug traffickers.  Her FBI partner Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya) isn’t invited.

With little specific information but the heavy realization her work is more “clean up” versus truly rooting out and solving the cross-border drug trafficking issues, she signs on.  Immediately things seem “off” to her, as she’s shuttled away on a private jet with the mysterious Graver and even more mysterious “consultant,” Colombian lawyer Alejandro (Benecio Del Toro).

Kate’s by-the-book mindset is seriously shaken as she rides along on a mission that is clearly not the tame trip to El Paso laid out in her briefing.  Her questions receive unsatisfying answers, and her suspicions grow as all the while she grudgingly continues to fall in with the two mysterious task force leaders and their supporting band of young US army vets.   Particularly perplexing to her is Alejandro.  Her instincts and observations are screaming his purpose is far deeper and potentially more sinister than “consultant,” but his overall reserve and flashes of kindness elucidate little.

Sicario has a lot of excellent qualities, but two key things nagged at me both while I was watching it, and after.  The first bothered me as an idealist that also realizes it’s possible EVERYTHING is totally rigged behind the scenes by the rich and/or powerful.  Legal & illegal drugs, elections, terrorism, Powerball,  the Super Bowl…it’s terrifying, and I don’t like to think about it because I rather like the modicum of sanity I have.

The second part that got under my skin and lingered there was how much of a man’s world it is.  I adore tough and smart female law enforcement/forensic/supernatural badass characters like Nikki Heat, Kay Scarpetta, Kinsey Millhone, Kate Daniels, Mercy Thompson.  Sometimes they get into trouble and need help, but they also do their share of bailing other people’s butts out of the fire.   Within Sicario, several situations emerge where Kate is hurt or nearly killed by men who physically attack her. It’s not that I object to her being in dangerous situations – I’m far more comfortable with her having the equal opportunity to take the risks vs being “protected” via exclusion – but it’s just not easy to watch.

If you:

  • Love great acting and cinematography
  • Understand that it truly takes drastic measures to get to the root of a problem – especially a social/political one
  • Believe in the means justifying the end

Put it in the queue!

However, if you:

  • Are bothered by lots of shooting and carnage
  • Think “Just Say No” is an effective war on drugs
  • Don’t like blurry lines between “good guy” and “bad guy”

Don’t put it in the queue