Saturday, November 28, 2015

Spectre: Bond's Past Comes Calling

The James Bond series hit a high water mark with the 2012 release of Skyfall. The movie celebrated the 50th anniversary of the long-running franchise with a gripping, action packed tale. The film managed to have a strong emotional element as well, and seemed to bring Bond’s origin story (as re-imagined in the Daniel Craig led entries that began with 2006’s Casino Royale) to a close. At the climax of the movie, the template was set to move the series forward with new adventures steeped in 007 tradition, including the return of some classic elements of the previous era, like Miss Moneypenny. Now the latest film in the series, Spectre, brings a wall-known Bond villain back into the forefront of the series, and digs a bit deeper into 007’s past.

The movie opens with a thrilling chase set in Mexico City during the Day of The Dead festival, as Bond hunts down an assassin. The scene is done in one long tracking shot, and director Sam Mendes does an amazing job orchestrating the sequence. It’s one of the best “teasers” of the series. Bond gets his man, but when he returns to London, we learn the mission wasn’t sanctioned, and M suspends him. Bond has very personal reasons for his actions, and continues his own investigation of the assassin’s mysterious terrorist organization. Meanwhile, a top-level bureaucrat in MI5 is planning to close down the Double O section, and use a new worldwide surveillance system to keep the peace. Bond, M, and their entire team may be out of a job. 

Bond continues to follow his leads, and he infiltrates the organization, known as Spectre. As he tries to get further inside the group, he meets a familiar enemy; Mr. White, from Casino Royale & Quantum of Solace. White gives him information on the organization, but asks Bond to protect his daughter, who will be targeted by the group because he helped Bond. Once 007 gets to the heart of Spectre, he finds that their leader is someone who has ties to his past, and has specific plans for vengeance against our hero. It’s a villain who will be very familiar to long-time Bond fans, just like Spectre itself. Just how far (and how deep) does Spectre’s reach go? Have they infiltrated the government? Will the new surveillance system mean the end of Bond’s days an agent? Its a fast-paced, exciting and well-produced movie. You get everything you expect from a Bond film: globe-hopping adventure, gadgets, nefarious villains & beautiful women. 

While the screenwriters stretch things a bit trying to tie together all of Craig’s films into a single story, there are some spectacular action sequences, and the many nods/Easter eggs to classic Bond lore make this a sure bet for 007 aficionados. It’s a film that recalls the large-scale vistas of Dr. No & You Only Live Twice, but also the tough, lean espionage action of From Russia With LoveSpectre is a well-made movie that should please fans of the series. While it doesn't quite reach the heights of Casino Royale or Skyfall, it's a solid entry in the adventures of our favorite British agent. There are reports that this may be Daniel Craig’s swan song as Bond (though no official announcement has been made) so it will be interesting to see where the series goes next. I’ve purposely not given away too much of the plot specifics so you can enjoy the film on your first viewing. Spectre is currently in theaters. Here’s a link to the trailer:

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats: Sweet Soul, Funk & Rock & Roll

Talk about a leopard changing his spots. On his current release, Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, Denver based singer-songwriter Rateliff has taken a sharp left turn into Sam & Dave territory. After releasing a couple of albums worth of intense, folk leaning music, he’s embraced his inner Otis Redding. The disc is filled with songs that should appeal to fans of Redding, James Brown, Sam Cooke & Van Morrison. From the terrific R&B flavor of “Look It Here,” & “Howling At Nothing, “to the soulful ballads “I’d Be Waiting” & “Wasting Time,” this is a groove-tastic record. There are also some touches of gospel & rock & roll on tracks like “I Need Never Get Old” and “S.O.B.” which is perhaps the catchiest ode to post-breakup drinking (and the DTs) ever written. It's no mistake that the record has been released on the now legendary Stax label, the well-known home of gritty soul music. It's the perfect place for this album.

Rateliff’s powerful vocals are by turns gruff & tender, depending on the needs of the song. The band is uniformly excellent, featuring trumpet player Lesley Watkins and guitarist Luke Mossman, among others. It’s as if Booker T & The MGs and The Band formed an alliance, and combined their sounds to bring forth a melting pot of Americana, rock, funk, blues & soul. This is an album you’ll want to spin at parties, driving in the car, or while hanging out on a rainy Sunday. The disc was produced by Richard Swift, and is available for download on iTunes & other streaming music services. Here are links to performances of “Howling At Nothing”, “I Need Never Get Old,”, and of course, "S.O.B." This is one my favorite releases of 2015. Check out Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats now; highly recommended. And be sure to go out and see the band live if they're in your area; the group is currently on tour.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Crimson Peak: Del Toro's Gothic Tale

Writer-Director Guillermo Del Toro is a filmmaker who’s always worn his influences & his love of genre stories on his sleeve. His latest film, Crimson Peak, is his version of a Gothic romance, with a strong helping of the supernatural etched into the story. The movie tells the tale of Edith Cushing, a woman living in Buffalo in 1901. She writes stories about ghosts & spirits, but her editor keeps telling her to stick to love stories. Edith is close to her father, who's a successful businessman. She’s sensitive to supernatural events, after losing her mother at a young age. In fact, her mother’s ghost appeared to Edith shortly after her passing and warned her to “Beware of Crimson Peak.” But what is Crimson Peak, and what does the cryptic warning mean?

Edith meets Sir Thomas Sharpe, an Englishman who’s in town seeking investors for his clay-mining project. He meets with Edith’s father, who rejects his investment proposal. Edith & Thomas share a mutual attraction, and pursue a relationship. Edith’s father disapproves, and tries to block the romance, but he dies mysteriously. Edith marries Thomas (which gives him access to her inheritance) and moves to England with him. His sister, Lucille, who lives with them, treats Edith coldly, and seems to resent her presence. Then Edith begins to see ghosts in the strange house, and becomes distressed. Why does she feel ill all the time? Is there more to Thomas & Lucille’s story? Will Edith’s friend Alan, who’s back in America and investigating the mysterious circumstances of the death of Edith’s father, learn the truth? And can it be that the house is called....Crimson Peak?

This stylish movie is Del Toro’s love letter to a mélange of genres, including the films of Italian horror master Mario Bava, director Roger Corman’s 1960s Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, and classic Gothic romances like Jane Eyre, and Wuthering Heights. Crimson Peak is an amazing looking film with stunning production design, and the use of sumptuous colors for the costumes & backgrounds adds to the rich detail. In fact, the color palette is very reminiscent of the Hammer films of the 1960s, another of Del Toro’s touchstones for the project, and you might notice Edith's last name is a tribute to one of Hammer's stars, the late Peter Cushing. And you will truly feel, as in many of Poe’s tales, that the house is a character in the story. Del Toro, and his crew, including cinematographer Dan Laustsen & editor Bernat Vilaplana, has done a masterful job. The score by Fernando Velazquez is appropriately romantic & eerie in equal measure.

The cast is excellent; Mia (Alice in Wonderland) Wasikowka, as Edith, is the perfect Gothic heroine; Tom Hiddelston, best known as Loki in the Marvel Universe films, is quite good as the handsome, brooding Thomas, and Charlie (Sons of Anarchy) Hunnam offers fine support as Edith’s loyal friend Alan. But this movie belongs to Jessica Chastain, who is equal parts mysterious, sensual, and terrifying as Lucille. If you’re a fan of Del Toro’s or the filmmakers & genres I’ve mentioned above, this is a film that’s tailor made for you. It’s old fashioned in style & approach, and more atmospheric than scary, but it is beautifully made, and well worth seeing. This dark, romantic fairy tale has more in common with Del Toro’s previous efforts, like 2001’s The Devil’s Backbone, or 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth, than a lot of today’s horror fare. While the movie is currently ending its run in theatres, I highly recommend checking it out on home video when it's released. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer: