Midnight Mass

Mike Flanagan, the creative force behind The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor, returns with Midnight Mass, a new limited series on Netflix.  Similar to his two previous series, Midnight Mass is a combination of earnest performances, thoughtful, introspective dialog and stealth horror elements.  This time around, Flanagan has decided to de-emphasize the scary stuff, and the result is incredibly underwhelming, to the point where the series should have been titled Tedium.

Unlike his previous two series, Flanagan declines to scare us and instead spends nearly all of its run time on a) dialog that would feel right at home in a Philosophy 101 class and b) Catholic religious practices.  I think it is the first horror series that feels like it was written for NPR.  While the acting is fine, and there are a few disturbing scenes here and there, the overall effect I got from watching it was an overwhelming urge to check how much time was left.  The only thing scary about Midnight Mass is how boring and self-satisfied it is.  Not recommended.

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No Time To Die

For the record, I’m a casual Bond fan.  How casual?  Of all the actors who’ve played Bond, the only one where I’ve seen all of their performances in the role is Daniel Craig.  I’m nearly there with Pierce Brosnan, but I have yet to see Goldeneye.  I’ve only seen a couple of Roger Moore’s movies.  The only Sean Connery movie I’ve seen is Never Say Never Again.  I’ve never gotten round to watching From Russia With Love, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service or The Spy Who Loved Me.  Maybe I’ll get caught up after I’ve retired.  The 007 movie canon is definitely on my bucket list.

Since No Time To Die is Craig’s finale, I want to say that I really enjoyed his turn as Bond.  Craig’s entries have eschewed the desire to become live-action cartoons, an impression I’ve had with the movies that preceded him.  The raw physicality he brought to the part, coupled with an almost pathological desire to confront mayhem head-on, made even his lesser entries watchable (I’m looking at you, Quantum of Solace and Spectre).

So how does No Time To Die stack up with the previous four Craig entries?  I’d put it behind Casino Royale and Skyfall, but above Quantum of Solace and Spectre.  The pluses outweigh the minuses, but those minuses are difficult to ignore.  There is a great Bond movie in No Time To Die, but it treads water in the last act, and overstays its welcome by at least thirty minutes.  The movie is watchable and enjoyable, though, and as a grade I’d give it a solid B.  Recommended.

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The Card Counter (Quick Take)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.  A lonely man who lives on the fringes of society seeks to atone for his sins by helping someone else.  This is Paul Schrader’s bailiwick, and with Taxi Driver, First Reformed and other screenplays he’s written throughout his career, he’s created a genre of films all to himself. (His body of work could be called a “franchise”, a commercial connotation that I’m sure he would find darkly humorous.)

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Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

After the creative and dramatic pothole that was Black Widow, Marvel returns to form with Shang-Chi and the Ten Rings.  Simun Liu stars as Shawn, a slacker (by choice) who spends his days as a valet with (platonic) best friend and fellow karaoke enthusiast Katy (Awkwafina).  The past Shawn ran away from tracks him down, resulting in a bus ride that would have made even Sandra Bullock nervous.  From there, Shawn reunites with the sister he abandoned, Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), and the father he ran away from, Wenwu (Tony Leung).  After spending years hiding from his past, Shawn is forced to accept who he is, as well as confront his father, who’s plans may put the entire world in danger.

Like most Marvel origin stories, Shang-Chi follows the template, down to the obligatory training sequences that confirm what we already know.  Fortunately, Shang-Chi colors outside the lines in ways that make this MCU entry exciting and engaging.  Most importantly, the movie takes its time and gives scenes (and the audience) a chance to breathe, letting us become immersed in its world before the fireworks arrive in the end.  The acting is exceptional all around, and supporting turns by Michelle Yeoh (as Shawn’s aunt) and Ben Kingsley (as misfit actor Trevor Slattery) add texture and humanity to the proceedings.  Shang-Chi leaves the funny business to Awkwafina, who’s career ascent has been nothing short of remarkable.  The special effects here are truly special, creating a sense of wonder instead of merely underpinning action sequences.  Highly recommended.

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The Night House

The premise of The Night House, that suicide irreparably damages the lives of the survivors, is a compelling one for a horror movie.  For Rebecca Hall’s Beth, her husband’s death understandably leaves her an emotional wreck, unable to control her anger at work and her despair at home.  The night brings no solace, with Beth possibly being haunted by her husband’s ghost.  After an engaging first act, the movie shifts our attention to the mystery of Beth’s husband’s death and the secrets he kept from her.  Was he having an affair, or affairs?  Why was he reading books about the occult?  What do all those strange architecture diagrams mean?  One twist gives way to another, and then another, until the movie lays on a heavy dose of the supernatural in a strained attempt at tying everything up.  The final reveal is logical, but nagging questions remain unanswered.  Hall delivers a compelling and convincing portrayal throughout, possibly a career highlight.  David Bruckner’s naturalistic direction gives the movie a disarmingly creepy vibe, at least until the final confrontation.  Recommended.

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Free Guy

Free Guy is built on a great concept: Guy, a non-player character (or NPC) doesn’t realize he’s an NPC, or that he essentially lives in a video game world.  Guy’s lack of awareness in his Grand Theft Auto existence would have been funny on its own.  Ryan Reynolds trades in his passive-aggressive sarcasm for playful innocence, spinning comedic gold from Guy’s naivete.  As if that weren’t enough, Free Guy asks an intriguing question: what if an NPC became self-aware and fell in love with a player?  Filled with winning performances and a playful sense for anarchy not seen since the Looney Tunes, Free Guy is fun writ large.  Highly recommended.

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The Tomorrow War

The Tomorrow War is a variation on the much better Tom Cruise vehicle Edge of Tomorrow. Pratt plays, Dan, a high school biology teacher sent to battle aliens in the future. Those aliens are mean and nasty, but they are no match against Dan and his plucky family. Even though this movie is completely redundant, the movie is entertaining enough to justify a viewing, particularly if you already have Amazon Prime. (You’re already paying for it, so why not?) Chris Pratt acts convincingly, no matter what the movie throws at him, and proves himself a worthy heir to Bruce Willis. Recommended.

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Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain

Anthony Bourdain epitomized the ethos of his rock-and-roll idols: live life as an adventure, and always tell it like it is.  An admitted former heroin addict in his teens, he was inspired to become a cook while working as a dishwasher.  Roadrunner chronicles Bourdain’s amazing life, which included several successful careers: cook, chef, best-selling author and Emmy-winning host of a popular television show.  Ultimately, Bourdain was a restless soul whose all-consuming quest for experience took him around the world, several times over.  Emotional commentary by family, friends and colleagues help us to understand who Bourdain was, beyond his television persona.  Roadrunner paints a stunning portrait of a larger-than-life person who was loved and appreciated by many, but for some reason never felt it or believed it.  Highly recommended.

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