It’s been a crowded month for new releases, good news for moviegoers seeking choice. Here are three very different features that merit at least one thumb up.
Impossible to ignore is the season’s biggest and flashiest blockbuster, the 24th episode of the long-running James Bond franchise that looks to surpass the take of 2012’s Skyfall. It will need to. With a staggering $US350 million production and marketing cost, the breakeven point is said to be $650 million in worldwide gross.
Helmed by Sam Mendes, veteran Brit director of stage and screen, Spectre has style and entertaining action to burn. Of course at the centre of it all is chiseled blue-eyed blonde Daniel Craig as the world’s sexiest and suavest spy who likes his martinis shaken not stirred, his women close, and his enemies dead. Indeed this Bond is something of a one-man killing machine when not enjoying other delights.
The movie begins amid the exotica of Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico City where Bond, as usual working on his own, causes an explosive international incident to avert a worse disaster. Bond’s exploits and escape via aerial acrobatics make for an opening sequence as spectacular as that of Skyfall. Back in London the loose-cannon 007 is called on the carpet by MI6 boss “M” (Ralph Fiennes, successor to the dearly departed Judy Dench who makes a cameo appearance). Fat chance of Bond obeying his suspension, especially as the agency itself is menaced by arrogant new national security chief Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott), called “C,” who aims to shut down the double-o program as part of his plan to become czar of a consolidated surveillance empire.
While Bond’s movements will be tracked, he doesn’t let that stop him, enlisting the help of computer wizard “Q” (Ben Wishaw) and loyal assistant Moneypenny (Naomie Harris). The first mission takes him to Rome where, after promptly seducing the middle-aged widow (Italian beauty Monica Bellucci) of a renowned assassin post-funeral, he infiltrates the clandestine assembly choosing a successor, ruled over by the shadowy head of Spectre (Christoph Waltz at his most villainous), a vast chaos-causing criminal conspiracy in cahoots with other nefarious ambitions of global control. This master of evil, who recognizes Bond, turns out to be Ernst Blofeld, a.k.a. Franz Oberhauser, supposedly killed in an avalanche decades earlier but who has all along been his principal nemesis — “the author of all (Bond’s) pain,” as he puts it.
To unravel and foil Spectre Bond heads to the Austrian Alps to locate “the pale king,” a.k.a. “Mr. White,” whose daughter Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) will be key to finding Spectre’s headquarters, a complex built into a meteorite crater in the North African desert. There’s a stop in Tangiers for clues, then a train ride to the middle of nowhere. Throughout, the irresistible pair of Bond and Swann — they do look smashing together — are pursued by Spectre’s baddest, always emerging from deathtraps with nary a scratch or hair out of place. Frantic scenes later we’re back in London for a grand finale, racing against the clock of a dastardly global surveillance scheme.
In Fleming’s original Bond novels Spectre stood for “Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion.” But I wouldn’t read any special meaning into the movie’s amoral universe in which, as always, Bond saves the day and gets the girl. This movie makes as little sense as it is sensational.
Opening the same day as Spectre, the innocent, sweetly melancholic world of the late Charles M Schulz’s much-loved comic character Charlie Brown could hardly be more different. Directed by Steve Martino, with screenwriting contributions from Schulz’s son Craig and grandson Bryan, this big-budget ($100 million) 3D version tries not to stray too far from what has made the original hand-drawn classics such a family favourite for 65 years.
Besides the hapless “blockhead” Charlie — perfectly voiced by 11-year-old Montrealer Noah Schnapp — are the familiar cast of characters: little sister Sally who dotes on her big brother, bossy Lucy with her five-cents “psychiatric help” stand, her brother Linus (though relegated to a minor role and mostly without his blanket), Snoopy of the red doghouse and tweety-bird sidekick Woodstock, Schroeder on the piano, tomboy Peppermint Patty and myopic Marcie, Pig-Pen, and above all, the Little Red-Haired Girl, the new classmate with whom the eternally bashful Charlie is smitten.
The movie’s main storyline, which jumps around between winter and school’s out summer seasons, follows Charlie’s painfully shy efforts to be noticed by the little red-haired girl. (Sequences of Snoopy’s aerial contests with the “Red Baron” while wooing a French female poodle flyer “Fifi” seem incidental, as if included to show off special effects.) After Charlie becomes the class celebrity by mistake, the moral of the story becomes that kindness and honesty, not fame or fortune, are the best ways to a girl’s heart.
The computer-generated animation is by Blue Sky, the studio associated with the Ice Age series, and while not excessive, it lacks the poignant warmth and charming simplicity of such loved shows as A Charlie Brown Christmas, made 50 years ago. Call me nostalgic, but this new gaudier version isn’t an improvement.
Still I give The Peanuts Movie a modest recommendation. Several reviews have been unduly harsh. For example, writing in The Globe and Mail John Semley exclaimed “Good grief, they’ve ruined Charlie Brown.” They haven’t, not really. Kids of all ages will probably enjoy it while at least introducing a new generation to classic characters who never grow old.
Set in London in 1912, several years before the cataclysm of the First World War, director Sarah Gavron’s stirring drama delves into the lives of some of the women involved in the struggle to get the vote, a polarizing issue that was a principal source of domestic disturbances.
The main figure is Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a working-class woman who toils long hard hours in a laundry where her husband Sonny (Ben Wishaw) also works. At home she is a dutiful wife and dotes on her little boy George. She is introduced to the women’s movement by strong-willed co-worker Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff), who suffers from an abusive husband and whose daughter also works in the laundry. At first Maud remains apolitical and very reluctant but in a watershed moment she is thrust into testifying about workplace conditions before a parliamentary inquiry led by Lloyd George. She explains how she was born in the laundry, starting working part time at age seven and full time since age 12.
Despite a sympathetic hearing it becomes clear that the bastions of male power and privilege will do nothing to advance the franchise for women. At a peaceful demonstration against this betrayal protestors including Maud are attacked by police. She is manhandled, arrested and imprisoned. She claims not to be a suffragette when confronted by the chief inspector, Arthur Steed (Brendan Gleeson), in charge of the state’s crackdown and surveillance. However, events keep pushing Maud in the direction of militancy. She even gets to meet the fugitive suffragette leader Emeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep in a brief appearance), inciting her followers to deeds of civil disobedience with the rallying cry, “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.”
Maud is drawn into a small circle of committed activists led by pharmacist Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter) whose supportive husband contrasts with the uncomprehending Sonny. After a longer incarceration he banishes her from their home. Unable to care for George, he puts the boy up for adoption against her tearful pleas. Such sacrifices, including being cast out from the laundry, are not enough to deter Maud. She also spurns the efforts of Inspector Steed to turn her into an informer on a movement decried by the authorities as dangerously subversive. Instead she becomes devoted to a campaign that entails attention-grabbing acts of violence against property — breaking windows, setting off explosives, cutting telegraph lines. That builds to a harrowing climax based on actual events in which one of the group, Emily Wilding Davison, is killed, becoming a galvanizing martyr for the suffragette cause. Archival footage of her mass public funeral underscores the extent of its impact.
Suffragette tells an important story aided by strong performances, especially by Mulligan in the lead role for which she has received a Hollywood film award as “actress of the year.” The movie ends with a series of dates indicating how long it has taken for women to get the vote in various countries — as yet far from achieved in places like Saudi Arabia. It’s worth being reminded how hard women have had to fight for basic rights. Equality for women, not to mention violence against women, remain significant issues in the most advanced societies. That includes in Hollywood. While a new Canadian prime minister can argue for gender parity in cabinet “because it’s 2015,” there’s still a long way to go.