That’s definitely not a candy bar floating in the pool.
One of the first things they teach students in screenwriting class is to write a sympathetic protagonist so the audience has someone to root for. Apparently, the writers of Deep Water – Zach Helm and Sam Levinson – missed that week of class because every character in Deep Water is a character you’d like to see drown in a toilet. This includes Trixie, the adolescent daughter of loathsome couple Vic and Melinda Van Allen (Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas, respectively). To be fair, Helm and Levinson adapted a novel of the same name written way back in 1957, but even if the characters are shits in the book, at least one of them could have been modified for the movie to make them, you know, not shits. Ooh, maybe that’s the twist – we’re supposed to root for the deep water.
(SPOILERS – Not even Disney cares if this movie gets spoiled. They removed it from opening in theaters and sent it straight to Hulu.)
Vic and Melinda have a marriage best described as “huh?” We first meet Vic setting his bicycle against the front door of his house, then turning to look up at Melinda. Melinda is sitting halfway up a staircase, mumbles something to Vic, then gets up and disappears up the stairs. Vic begins to follow her, then abruptly turns into another doorway halfway up the stairs. Clearly, these two are not on good terms. Maybe it’s because Vic is retired after having invented the chip in drones that finds and kills people and being “rich as fuck” to quote his friend Grant (Lil Rey Howery). Or maybe it’s something else.
Adding to their misery is Trixie, whom Melinda appears to hate, but only when she notices Trixie in the same room with her. Vic doesn’t hate Trixie, but doesn’t seem to care a whole lot about her either. More like he tolerates her while going through parenting motions like giving her a bath or taking her to school. And what did Trixie ever do to them? I mean besides ignoring Melinda’s pleas to stop telling Alexa to play the same song over and over at ear-splitting volume and, asking Vic if he murdered Melinda’s boyfriends and hinting that she might not keep it to herself? I mean, can you blame Trixie? What kind of asshole parents intentionally name their daughter Trixie?
I know what you’re thinking…what song? And, yes, you read that correctly – Melinda’s boyfriends are not a secret to Trixie. Nor are they a secret to Vic. In fact, he is well aware of them, apparently even condoning them. After the first couple of scenes, we meet Melinda’s current boyfriend, Joel (Brendan C. Miller), at a party at Grant’s house. Joel literally thanks Vic for being so cool about inviting him into their home and letting him have a relationship with Melinda. Since I had not read the film’s synopsis, nor had the trailers even hinted at this, I was confused and intrigued at the same time. All I knew was the film was billed as an erotic thriller, so my brain immediately starting coming up with different sexual fantasies and situations that could explain this setup, plus what kinds of scenes we were about to witness. Then, Vic proceeds to scare the shit out of Joel by telling Joel that he murdered the last guy that Melinda had a relationship with.
Unfortunately, this was the high point of the story. At that precise moment in the film, I thought the eventual reveal would be Vic and Melinda’s relationship was based on the two of them getting off on Vic watching Melinda screw other dudes, then murdering said dudes, then Vic and Melinda having raw, animal, Earth-shattering sex on the corpse of her lovers. It wouldn’t be the first Affleck film to feature that kind of disturbing sex (Gone Girl). Not only was I wrong about their relationship, but the film was neither erotic nor a thriller.
Turns out, Vic just doesn’t want a divorce, so he tolerates his wife fucking every hot dude that comes along. Why, you ask? Beats me. Maybe he just doesn’t want to be like Ross from Friends. Maybe Melinda is the best lay in the history of mankind. Maybe he just wants to go Soylent Green on these dudes and feed them to his pet snails. Yes, he actually has pet snails. Don’t all retired engineering geniuses with hot, unfaithful wives have pet snails? The point is we don’t know because the film doesn’t ever tell us how they got to this point in the first place.
And now you see where the writing utterly lets down the viewer. Melinda and Vic have no motivation we are ever made aware of to explain this bizarre situation. We don’t know what led Melinda to the point where she is banging other men nor how she feels about Vic at all. We are quite literally introduced to her staring daggers at Vic, then indiscreetly having sex with other dudes…in her and Vic’s home…while Vic is in the house. Ordinarily, this behavior would make us sympathize with Vic. Except, we don’t because Vic is at first okay with Melinda’s behavior, then dances one time with a friend, Kelly (Kristen Connolly), at a party but it’s totally innocent – even though we are absolutely rooting for him to get naked with Kelly, not just because of Melinda, but because Kelly’s husband is an ass hat – then plays with his snails a bit, then becomes jealous to the point of actual murder. The only sympathy we have at this point is for the snails having to put up with this shriveled sac of a human.
Now I see why Disney opted to bury this movie. Not only is it full of boring and terrible human beings, but the film didn’t even have the decency to throw in the erotic part of erotic thriller. There is one sex scene between Vic and Melinda that makes us feel the opposite of a horny and another scene in which we see Melinda’s tits while Vic is helping her drunken ass crawl into bed. And I use the word tits instead of breasts because using the word breasts would indicate I have any kind of respect for this double-flusher of a film.
Rating: Not even worth the toilet paper it was written on.
It has been six long, long years since the last James Bond film (Spectre) graced us with its presence. In fact, those years were so long that I forgot that I created a review format for James Bond films. This is a pleasant surprise for me because I was struggling with how I was going to talk about the newest Bond flick, No Time to Die. I also forgot how Spectre had really fallen back into the very standard formula for Bond movies. You know, the one that Austin Powers (among others) makes fun of.
The trick is going to be avoiding spoilers because I think you should see No Time to Die and I really want to talk about it. A friend asked me what I thought of the movie and when I started to talk about my one real criticism, in very general terms mind you, he said all he wanted to know was if I thought it was good or not because he didn’t want the movie spoiled. While that is fair, that isn’t what he asked me and, maybe don’t ask a film critic their opinion of a movie if all you want to know is thumbs up or thumbs down. Plus, the things in a movie that cause my thumb to point in a certain direction are probably wildly different than most people. I mean, I hated John Wick for many of the reasons people liked it. In fact, you probably shouldn’t ask anything at all if you are worried about someone else’s opinion coloring your idea of the movie before you see it. In other words, run away from this review until you’ve seen the movie.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s talk No Time to Die, with just a dash of MILD SPOILERS. Leave now or forever hold your peace.
After the ghastly opening number of Spectre, Billie Eilish gives us “No Time to Die,” a haunting song in the vein of Adele’s “Skyfall” that foreshadows the general mood of the movie. Considering this is definitely, I promise, we swear this time, Daniel Craig’s last turn as James Bond, it’s a very good song for Craig’s, er, swan song.
The nanobots are back to monitor James’ vital signs, as well as of the new double-O agent we meet, Nomi (Lashana Lynch). Tell me again – why do we need to monitor their vital signs? It’s not like there is a medivac team hovering over the mission site, just in case one of them needs a de-fib. There isn’t a circling drone loaded with a pharmacy of poison antidotes that’s going to swoop in and fire syringes into their necks. Even from a movie perspective, it doesn’t add drama since we are literally watching Bond and Nomi fight their way through bad guys. Even Q (Ben Whishaw) isn’t paying attention to the vital signs since he is busy working other tech parts of the job during the big mission.
Bond also gets a new watch because his watch in Spectre was a bomb. This time, his watch can emit an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP), which can knock out electronics. The idea that a tiny little watch can emit an EMP is hilarious, but we’ll accept it in a James Bond film, as long as they stop talking after saying “the watch has an EMP.” No, seriously Q, stop talking. Stop telling us its range. No, don’t tell us it only works on hard-wired electronics. Oh, for fuck’s sake, now I’m going to notice how it contradicts exactly those things when Bond decides to use it. Also, why didn’t Nomi get a cool watch?
Unless you are very much a gearhead, there are only two cars that will stand out. The first is the Aston Martin DB5, a car we saw in Spectre and six other Bond flicks, including the first Bond movie, Goldfinger. And yes, it has all the silly gadgets from those films as well. Smoke, exploding spike balls, miniguns in the headlights, bulletproof glass, the ability to spin in a circle without going anywhere. It’s a pretty car, but I would have much preferred Nomi’s Aston Martin DBS Superleggera being the featured car.
Speaking of aesthetics, they also decided to dust off the hideous Aston Martin Vantage from 1977’s The Living Daylights (featuring Timothy Dalton) as the second featured Bond car. To me, muscle cars are ugly monstrosities that scream “I’m compensating for something.” The Vantage looks like a Mustang ate an Aston Martin because it ran out of Viagra. I don’t know how the Vantage found it’s way back into the franchise, but it should have stayed in the museum of misfit cars where it belongs.
Cars aren’t the only thing recycled in No Time to Die. The memory of Vesper Lynd makes a return and Bond’s new love (also returning from the previous film), Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux), insists he makes his peace with Vesper’s death if he and Madeleine are to remain a couple. This being a Bond film, their relationship doesn’t make it out of the opening scene intact due to bullets flying, cars racing around, and Bond believing Madeleine betrayed him to Spectre.
The new Bond girl in this film is Paloma (Ana de Armas), a CIA agent working with Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright). Except, she turns out not to be a true Bond girl since she never gets naked with him. Her task is to escort Bond into a high-class party to find and secure a missing scientist (David Dencik). In what is the best scene in the film, the two of them are dressed to the nines, two criminally gorgeous people clearly at ease with each other. Paloma is practically giddy with excitement, as she is a newly minted agent, and clearly enjoying herself on the mission. Then, the action starts and the two perform in the best action sequence of the film. It’s a scene that stands out for the quality of its components while not ending in the cliched Bond conquest of other films, including the quick death of said female conquest. While we all debate and guess at who will play the next James Bond, I would love to see de Armas succeed Felix as the next CIA buddy.
Spectre brought back the head henchman cliche in Dave Bautista, but didn’t give him a gimmick. This time, we get the whole package in Primo (Dali Benssalah). He’s lethal, he barely speaks, and he has a bionic eye. The eye doesn’t appear to be useful to Primo in any way, but does appear to be useful to his master. On the plus side, it’s not a goofy razor hat, but on the negative side, it should have been a goofy bionic eye.
The new villain is my one real criticism of the movie. He is a very generic villain whose presence is almost an afterthought to the plot. The plot itself seems to be more about wrapping up any and all loose ends that may still be dangling, stretching back to Casino Royale, than whatever the new villain is up to. Why am I still referring to him as the new villain instead of by name? Because his name is never enunciated enough for me to understand it and I had to Google it to learn that it’s Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek). Even the story of how his face became disfigured was lost upon me because it was so boring and doesn’t matter to the plot. But the main way you know Safin wasn’t a good villain is because Spectre’s villain, Blofeld (Christoph Waltz), is featured in just one single scene and it completely overshadows all of Safin’s scenes combined. It’s a shame because I was really looking forward to seeing Malek give us a memorable villain.
The Death Ray
Nanobots. No, not the vital sign monitoring nanobots. These other nanobots are spread like the plague and target people based on pre-programmed DNA and also DNA that is similar, but not too similar. Don’t ask. And they can never be destroyed. In the wrong hands, it’s the end of the world, but that seems to be Safin’s objective only after his other objectives have run their course. It’s like he does it out of inertia rather than desire. And, the nanobots are originally created by MI6. What would a spy movie be without government secrets? At least it’s not an actual death ray.
Another deserted island housing an abandoned military installation, complete with missile silos and blast doors. The Safin family had converted it into their evil lair and Lyutsifer now runs it. The main features are a poison garden and pools filled with acid and dozens of peons stirring the acid while standing in the acid. I mean, I think it was acid. A bad guy melts in it when he falls in during the climax. But it has no purpose other than to be an obstacle, which means the acid is also just the Chompers.
If this movie hadn’t been slated for release pre-Covid pandemic, I’d say it was the idea of government scientists genetically modifying diseases in labs. Not that movies haven’t used this plot before in many various forms, be it diseases or technology or weapons, all in the name of protecting the country and/or the world. It’s pretty standard for political thrillers and spy movies. Hell, it’s the plot of Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. There is also the idea that science playing God will be the end of us all. We see this scare the shit out of easily frightened people every couple of years, whether it’s cloning, stem cells, artificial intelligence, condoms, evolution, gravity, vaccines, heliocentrism, and the wheel. This time it’s nanotechnology. Next time it’ll be voting machines.
If you have more questions than “good or bad,” the next question from people is where does No Time to Die rank against the other Daniel Craig films? The answer is below Casino Royale. I’ve enjoyed all five of Craig’s Bond films, but Casino Royale is easily the best. After that, throw a dart. The other four are all very entertaining and feature good components, as well as their flaws and cliches. No Time to Die isn’t particularly memorable compared to the rest, just like the rest aren’t particularly memorable. That in itself is a little disappointing since it would have been nice for Craig’s last Bond film to be as amazing as his first. I mean, thumbs up…mostly.
Rating: Ask for two dollars back because Bond villains should be worth the price of admission.
We’re finally to the last – arguably the best – big movie season of the year. Unlike the summer, it is not just filled with big, loud blockbusters plus even bigger, louder, dumb blockbusters. The end-of-year season includes prestige movies, smart dramas, Star Wars (usually), and, yes, big, loud, dumb blockbusters (looking at you, Jumanji: The Next Level). It means a time when blockbusters don’t fill ninety percent of the theaters because studios actually want you to see the other movies. Thus, we get movies like Knives Out.
Knives Out takes elements of Clue and Greedy, mixes in some Agatha Christie, and sprinkles a little Foghorn Leghorn on top. I am always up for a good whodunit. These movies are very few and far between, so when one comes along, I look forward to it. Especially when that whodunit promises Daniel Craig and Chris Evans. And Jamie Lee Curtis. And Michael Shannon and Christopher Plummer and Toni Collette and Don Johnson. Well, maybe not those last two, but maybe some of you get really excited for Collette and Johnson.
We all really love you…’re money.
Harlan Thrombey (Plummer) is very old and very rich. Harlan has been taking care of his family for decades, lending money to Joni (Collette) for her business, paying for Meg’s (Katherine Langford) college, gifting seed money to Linda’s (Curtis) business, and letting Walt (Shannon) run Harlan’s publishing business. When Harlan is found dead in his office (the opening scene of the film), the cops interview the family at Harlan’s home and the dysfunction and greed starts to reveal itself.
The interviews are initially conducted by Detective Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield), the audience getting a rotation of Linda, Joni, Walt, and Richard (Johnson) answering questions while private investigator Benoit Blanc (Craig) looks on in the background. Eventually, Benoit takes over the investigation, revealing that he was paid by an anonymous benefactor to investigate Harlan’s death (initially ruled a suicide). These scenes do a great job of establishing characters, setting up the scenes, and revealing the timeline of events that occurred the night of Harlan’s death.
Move! I got this.
The two remaining main characters are Harlan’s grandson Ransom (Evans), and Harlan’s caregiver Marta (Ana de Armas). Ransom is universally loathed by the family, mostly because he is a trust-fund baby freeloading through life. Marta is the opposite of Ransom and the one person Harlan fully trusted. She also has an interesting condition where she vomits if she lies. If this is a real condition, I want to meet the person that has it and test it. From a distance. Benoit most certainly does.
Now you know the basics of the film and the rest is trying to figure out the truth behind Harlan’s death before the movie reveals it. Like any good whodunit, there are red herrings, twists, and turns to throw you and the detectives off the scent. The problem is it is hard to focus attention on looking for clues and misdirection when we are being wildly entertained by a bunch of actors reveling in their roles and the screenplay. For my money, the best line comes when a character loses patience with Benoit, telling him to stop with the “absurd, Kentucky-fried, Foghorn Leghorn accent,” a line that simultaneously jabs at Benoit’s accent…and Craig doing Benoit’s accent. It also is an apt summary of a movie that is a legitimate murder-mystery…while also being a bit of a caricature of a murder-mystery. A movie that is an apt metaphor of the end-of-the-year movie season.
Rating: Worth ten dollars more than you paid for it, which should prevent you from paying for Charlie’s Angels.
When it comes to movies, writing is more important than everything else. Without writing, the stuff in a movie is meaningless. Costumes are being worn because actors get cold and the movie is supposed to be rated PG-13. Sets are just piles of wood, nails, and paint that actors run across because a guy with a bullhorn and a headset just gave the go ahead to blow up that car. Lights are turned on so the actors don’t trip over props while running from the explosion. In other words, nothing is happening for any reason, and nothing you are seeing has any meaning…without a story. Writing gives all of that stuff purpose and good writing ties all of it together in ways that make you glad you spent money and time to watch it. And that’s how we got The Dark Knight. But without a story or any decent writing, I guess a movie like that must simply meet its release date. And that’s how we got Suicide Squad.
But, this isn’t about DC movies. This is about a movie called War Dogs. War Dogs is the perfect example of how good writing makes a great movie. More specifically, it’s a perfect example of how to adapt source material into a screenplay. One of the biggest complaints by moviegoers about Hollywood book adaptations is that “the book was better.” In other words, Hollywood often screws up the source material in an adaptation. While there are countless examples of poor adaptations, there are also numerous examples of superior adaptations, and War Dogs is one of them.
War Dogs is based on a Rolling Stone article titled Arms and the Dudes telling the story of the rise and fall of two twenty-something American men who became international arms dealers and found themselves winning a $300 million defense contract to supply arms to the US military in order to arm the Afghan army.
If the screenplay writers had adapted the story with no changes, it would have made for a fairly uninteresting movie. Don’t get me wrong, the article is fascinating and worth the read, but it isn’t worth two hours in a theater. The two men, Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) and David Packouz (Miles Teller) are both greedy war-profiteers who have no qualms about the legality of what they are doing. The US government officials contracting them are well aware of what they are doing and simply don’t care. They work with several shady arms dealers who are all in it for the same reasons – money. Do you see the problem here? Not one character or entity discussed in the article comes off as the hero or even anti-hero in this story. So, in the movie version, who are you supposed to root for? After watching such a movie, you’d wonder why they spent $45 million on what amounts to a 60 Minutes segment.
Rather than bore you with an overly long night-time news segment, the writers took the characters, the bones of the story, and a couple of fun details (David was a masseuse prior to running guns) and turned it into something worthy of a theater. To start with, they made David the hero and improved his motivation. He also gets a pregnant wife, Iz (the gorgeous and scene stealing Ana de Armas), and is forced to work for Efraim because he is failing to earn enough money to support his family. In contrast, the writers bring Efraim as-is because being a sleazy, greedy, shitbag of a friend makes him the perfect villain. Now we have two well-defined characters whose roles are clear throughout the film.
Then, they embellish a couple of the contract stories and align them in a way that perfectly escalates the stakes and the tension as the movie approaches its climax. The best way to describe it is as a movie that plays out much like Two for the Money or 21. Our hero is brought into the lucrative business, finds early success which leads to more success, which leads to the ‘big one,’ which leads to the inevitable crash, which leads to a satisfying end. In addition, the US government doesn’t come off nearly as shady because the movie needs it to be the uncorrupt lawman (if only this wasn’t an embellishment *sigh*).
There were a few more tweaks, but that’s the meat of the movie and I’m not sure they could have adapted the story any better. On top of that, they nailed the casting. Hill was every bit the villain they needed him to be and you’ll want to punch Efraim as much as David does. Teller also proved that he can actually act when given a decent character and we can now forgive him for his abysmal Mr. Fantastic. As I mentioned earlier, de Armas manages to upstage Teller in their scenes together, especially when she calls him out for being a liar late in the movie. And then there’s the gorgeous and scene-chewing Bradley Cooper (playing arms dealer Henry Girard), every bit as engaging as we’ve come to expect from him. Even in his relatively few scenes, it’s hard to believe he’s not actually a slimy, dangerous arms dealer brought into this movie to make it more real. And that, my friends, is how you write a movie worth watching that is based on literary source material.
Rating: Don’t ask for any money back and go read that article.