If anything will get ‘em back in movie theaters, it’s going to be No Time To Die, the 25th James Bond film that was ready to premiere when COVID shutdowns first struck, and is finally getting released 19 months or so later. This is duly a big, splashy, expensive (at a cost of about $300 million) adventure of the sort you expect from what’s arguably the medium’s longest-running, most steadily-successful franchise. (There have been even longer ones, such as say Tarzan, and even more lucrative ones, like Star Wars, but none have been as consistent in regularity of production or popularity.)
If you like this sort of thing, it was worth the wait, and the money to see it on the big screen, with the auditorium-armchair travel this time encompassing impressive locations in Italy, Norway, Jamaica, and the Faroe Islands. There’s plenty of action, of course, some a tad preposterous, though No Time does not embrace the extremely tongue-in-cheek, almost camp air of some prior Bond flicks—even as it refuses to take itself quite so seriously (at least most of the time) as other Daniel Craig entries.
Personnel this time encompass old friends (Jeffrey Wright, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Ralph Fiennes, Rory Kinnear, Christoph Waltz), not all of whom will survive this episode, as well as new friends, enemies, and frienemies (Lashana Lynch, Ana de Armas, Billy Magnussen, David Dencik, etc.). Apparently past his babe-bagging days, 007 now has one Serious Relationship at a time, this one with Spectre’s Lea Seydoux. A new main nemesis is played by Rami Malek, who does not factor greatly until the later parts of the film. That is perhaps just as well, since a little of him here goes a long way.
Craig has been making noises about leaving the role practically since he started, and No Time is definitely his last such outing. It’s a good one, very well directed by Oakland’s own Cary Joji Fukunaga (Sin Nombre, Beasts of No Nation, True Detective), who was an inspired choice to replace late project dropout Danny Boyle (a good director, albeit probably not for this franchise). It’s also the longest 007 film ever, its nearly three hours moving at a brisk clip until an over-protracted climax at the classic “secret island lair” of a madman intent on destroying the world. (One weird thing here is that a film shot some months before COVID should revolve around a bioengineered plague, an obsession of real-life conspiracy theorists at present.) That begins to wear at our patience, as does Malek.
And then the film makes what to me seemed a heinous error that miscalculates our emotional investment, in several ways—to an extent that you could argue will undermine future installments. Or maybe not. Maybe by the time the next Bond film comes out in four to seven years, no one will remember or care what happened in this one. But it sure left me feeling like a bridge had been unnecessarily burnt.
Speaking of bridge-burning, the Balboa is showing (this Fri/8 and Mon/11 only) Karen Dalton: In My Own Time, about an important if under-appreciated artist who in many respects was her career’s own worst enemy. Born in 1937 Texas, raised in Oklahoma, dropping out of school for her first marriage (of three) at age 15, she was eventually considered one of the few significant figures with “an authentic folk background” (as opposed to a middle-class collegiate one) in the Greenwich Village folk music scene of the early 1960s. Some thought “she hit the scene harder than Dylan in terms of impact,” Bob himself later writing that Dalton, “sang like Billie Holliday and played guitar like Jimmy Reed.
But while a workaholic and perfectionist on some levels, Dalton was also self-defeating and wary of attention in others—traits exacerbated by a “somewhat depressive, sullen” personality, as well as escalating substance-abuse problems. She didn’t get around to recording albums until 1969 and 1971, long after the folk wave had receded in commercial terms. And despite the uniqueness of her interpretations (of both traditional songs and newer ones by collaborators like Tim Hardin), her music was a “dark, despairing world,” as latter-day fan Nick Cave says. Whatever cult following she might’ve built up during a tragically-curtailed life was sabotaged by her own unreliability and ambivalence towards success. Nonetheless, today she’s cited as an influence by performers like Joanna Newsom.
It’s a sad story, but also an intriguing one, not least because her talent remains so distinctive. In My Own Time is woven together from colleagues’ recollections and archival materials. In addition to its two Balboa dates (both 7 p.m., more info and tickets here), the documentary will be available on TVOD platforms as of November 19.
Other new releases (and revivals) on hand are all fit to put you in a Halloween mood:
GIALLOWEEN III: THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS. WARDH
The Roxie is observing October’s demand for spookiness with the return of Gialloween, which showcases films from the primarily Italian giallo vogue for violent, exploitative, but often stylish murder mysteries that were a popular export in the late 1960s and early ’70s. This new series kicks off with the first of director Sergio Martino’s several memorable works in the genre.
Edwige Fenech’s Mrs. Wardh is living as the wife of a diplomat (Alberto de Mendoza), while terrified of her sadistic ex-lover (Ivan Rassimov). She suspects the latter of being the slasher who is killing women in the area—and who seems to be stalking her. Meanwhile, she dallies with another man (her suave friend Hilton), which makes her something of a faithless tramp by these movies’ usual standards … though this one doesn’t seem to care much one way or the other about her morals, only about her mortal peril.
This isn’t the most flamboyant or bizarre giallo, but it’s stylish, and well-above-average in terms of direction, writing, and casting. While most of these movies seem highly arbitrary in their plot logic, when Strange Vice finally gets around to explaining who’s doing what to whom, it’s actually a very clever multiple twist that completely refigures our perception of the story to that point. The recently-restored 1971 film plays the Roxie Mon/11, followed by the same year’s The Fifth Cord from director Luigi Bazzoni (Tue/12), Giulio Questi’s fascinatingly oddball 1968 Death Laid an Egg (Wed/13) and finally Dario Argento’s 1970 The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (Thu/14), which was far from the first giallo, but whose major international success greatly boosted the form for several years. For info on the whole series, go here.
The giallos were unabashedly commercial enterprises in their day, winning scant critical appreciation until they were re-evaluated much later. By contrast, Icelandic director Valdimar Johannsson’s debut feature is the kind of curious arthouse conceit one can only imagine getting a major release during the COVID era, when production of mainstream entertainment has drastically slowed. It’s being sold as a horror movie, which means there’s going to a lot of screaming from fanboy types furious that they’ve been lured into a slow, stark, foreign-language domestic drama whose fantasy aspects are heavy on metaphor.
Noomi Rapace and Hilmir Snaer Guonason play a childless couple living on an isolated working farm—in the film’s striking, dialogue-free first minutes, their animals (including a house cat and herding dog) engage our attention at least as much as the humans. But an unusual lamb’s birth (unusual in ways we don’t ascertain for some time) changes their lives. They take a crib out of storage and raise the “baby” in their home, dressed in child’s clothing. The oddity of this circumstance goes unremarked until the husband’s ne’er-do-well brother (Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson) shows up, threatening to spoil their new happiness with his undisguised disbelief. Yet it turns out there are other, worse dangers to this bizarre household’s fragile status quo.
Lamb is a more fantastical extension of some previous Icelandic films (like Rams and Of Horses and Men) that probed the sometimes eccentrically-close relations between mankind, livestock, and landscape in this forbiddingly beautiful island nation. It’s always visually interesting, and you have to admire the actors’ commitment to naturalism—as well as the relative credibility of some eventual “creature” effects. (I have no idea to what extent they’re “practical,” computer-generated, or both. But this is definitely the year’s weird-baby companion piece to Annette’s puppet-child.)
Still, simultaneously offbeat and earnest as Lamb is, the central idea just didn’t work for me in emotional terms. It’s just too out-there to render relatable something that at its heart very basic about parenting and grief. Needless to say, however, others will surely find this accomplished peculiarity brilliant, if only because it goes so far out on a limb with such a poker face. Lamb opens Fri/8 at area theaters including the Roxie, Balboa, Metreon, Kabuki, and Shattuck.
Another risky mix of realism and fantasy is this impressively crafted first feature from director John Hsu, which has already been a big success in much of southeast Asia—but not China. where it (and the video game it’s rather surprisingly based on) has been banned. That no doubt reflects the curiosity and discomfort generated by its treatment of Taiwan’s White Terror period, a nearly four-decade stretch of martial law marked by the strictest political ideology, as well as the torture, imprisonment, and execution (up to 4,000 killed) of perceived government opponents.
Here, two teenaged students (Gingle Wang, Tseng Meng-po) at a 1962 state high school find themselves trapped in its confines after dark, prey to frightening visions, even monsters. As the past returns to their memory via flashbacks, they realize that this purgatory is just an illusory escape from the real world—one in which their participation in a secret club for reading forbidden texts has been discovered, with catastrophic consequences.
This use of fantasy concepts and imagery within a context of actual historical persecution may recall Pan’s Labyrinth, another movie many people liked more than I did. Ultimately in both films the genre aspects (which here play closer to something like Silent Hill) will strike some as arresting, others as a gratuitous sugar-pilling of tough issues that would be better addressed more directly—though a blunter film probably be less popular. Thus the love triangle that this story ultimately hinges on somewhat trivializes the harsh truth of past fascistic crimes (as do the monsters, natch), yet there’s no doubt that this made the film palatable to audiences who are absorbing a needed history lesson, nonetheless. Detention is playing limited US theaters as of Fri/8.
SONS OF STEEL
Moving from the serious to the very silly, there’s this 1988 Australian sci-fi fantasy musical, which never made it to North America until Future Video’s current release of a restored/remastered edition on Blu-ray and VHS. (Yes, VHS, a format that is reportedly making something of a vinyl-like comeback.) It was the first and last feature for writer-director Gary L. Keady, spun off a prior short called Knightmare.
The rise of MTV and popularity of Rocky Horror resulted in a lot of attemptedly cult-y rock musicals in the 1980s. You probably heard of very few of them even then, because they almost uniformly died gruesome commercial deaths, including such flops as The Apple, Shock Treatment, Earth Girls Are Easy, Population: 1, and the Pia Zadora vehicle Voyage of the Rock Aliens. Sons of Steel is very much of their ilk, with its promiscuously comingled elements of punk, bondage, gender blur, New Wave, dystopian futurism, and gay camp.
Black Alice (Rob Hartley) is the pug-ugly if iron-pumped “last rock star in the world,” as well as leader of the resistance against a fascist global regime. He’s frequently shirtless and forever yelling, unless singing—though he kind of yells that way, too. There’s time travel, pagan sacrifice, mad scientist stuff, hotties in stilettos, et al. This so-called “heavy metal musical” qualifies for that term if your definition of metal encompasses power ballads and synthpop, so long as they all have squealing guitars. What can you say? It was the ’80s.
Sons of Steel is not exactly “good,” nor was the result of this trouble-plagued production likely close to what its creator had originally envisaged. Still, it’s survives as a colorful curio that will certainly scratch that itch the next time you want a big dose of Big Hair excess from the era that brought you both Poison and Boy George.