For this month’s random grab bag of films we’ve seen over the past month, we have The Chambermaid, Prisoners of the Ghostland, The Protege, Stillwater, and No Time To Die. What’s worth your time, and what’s a crime? Find out now!
In spite of the persistent stereotype, notably in the US, of Mexicans as lazy, the citizens of that country are in fact the hardest working in the industrial world (though this in itself is not something to be proud of: it is a necessity of lax, or often absent, enforcement of labour laws; lack of job security; and huge income inequality).
Based on her own play, itself inspired by a photographic installation called The Hotel, Lila Avilés’s La camarista, or The Chambermaid, tells the tale of one of these hard-working, low-paid Mexicans, a young chambermaid in a 5-star Mexico City hotel. We never see the maid, Eve (Gabriela Cartol) outside of the hotel. She has a four-year-old son who she pays another woman to look after, but we never see him – to the viewer he exists only as a distant presence on a telephone, and he must seem like that to Eve for much of the time, too.
Eve is part of an army of domestic staff in the hotel, tending to the needs of the current guests, and wiping away the traces of the previous ones, bodily fluids and all, to maintain the illusion of blank newness and lack of history to each room’s new occupants. Even the views from the windows in the hotel’s corridors are out of bounds, the staff being paid to be not seen and not heard. Instead, when not cleaning rooms that would be the stuff of their dreams if they only had the time and energy left for such fripperies, Eve and her colleagues spend most of their time in the noticeably less-pleasant and less well-maintained service areas. In this world some people try to make a few extra pesos by selling plastic containers, fidget spinners and hand creams to their co-workers and a few, Eve included, arrive extra-early to take classes to allow them to earn a high school-level qualification, at least until the class is shut down by the union for an unexplained reason.
This is an area of domains and fiefdoms, with some very petty displays of minor authority, such as the lift operator who says nothing when a chef enters her lift eating, but rebukes Eve later for the same thing, because she can. But it’s also an area of aspiration: Eve herself, in sole charge of the 21st floor, has designs on the 42nd, a rarefied place of luxury suites, VIP guests and attendant perks, but this will be decided by an unseen management, and if workplace politics are at play, they’re as opaque to Eve as to the viewer.
None of the world of this hotel on its own is particularly enlightening or unusual – if you’ve ever seen any of the many documentaries or reality shows about life below stairs in hotels then none of this is going to be unfamiliar to you, and there’s nothing uniquely Mexican about most of it – but it’s still interesting for all that, and particularly for the empathy and sympathy we feel for its star.
Gabriela Cartol is captivating, her often expressionless face still hinting at hopes, aspirations and discontentment, and her standoffishness with her fellow employees instantly understandable for myriad good reasons, starting with chronic tiredness and fatigue and working up from there. It’s a delight to see her eventually open up, though, and even smile, and it’s then even more galling to see her dreams slapped down by the reality of her situation.
The Chambermaid is in many ways a tremendously downbeat film, with its strongest theme seeming to be a fatalistic “why fecking bother?”, though there’s certainly a broad vein of simmering defiance throughout, impotent as it may be. Cartol and Avilés together create an unsentimental portrait of this wage slave in the oddly austere and isolated world of this opulent hotel (we never see the city, except through the hotel’s windows), but fill that portrait with humanity, pathos and veracity. A few scenes are genuinely difficult to watch as a result, the tension almost unbearable as Eve looks like she might take out her frustrations in ways that would be entirely understandable but utterly self-defeating.
It’s not as accomplished a film, but La camarista is a good companion piece to Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, a faceless, corporate, modern counterpart to that film’s family employment, and is definitely worth seeking out.
Just last month we were discussing a more low-key than usual Nic Cage outing in Pig, and I suppose the universe had to find an urgent way of returning to equilibrium. I fear it may rather have overbalanced, as most of Prisoners of the Ghostland is altogether too whackadoodle to explain, or indeed comprehend.
Here Nic Cage is our anti-hero named, checks notes, Hero, a grizzled, all-action criminal incarcerated in the stockades after a bank job goes wrong after his erstwhile partner goes gun crazy and starts shooting up the place, including the children, won’t someone please think of the children. Well, turns out Hero does, his guilty imaginings of the kid along the path to redemption being the closest I can come to extracting any meaning from this.
Ah, yes, redemption, which comes in the shape of the local evil tyrant Governor, Bill Moseley, who wants Hero released to track down his adopted daughter, Sofia Boutella’s Bernice, who had ran off into the Ghostlands from the relative straightjacket-esque safety of, checks notes, Samurai Town, ruled by the Governor and his goons with an iron fist clenching a katana. So, Hero’s given a tight deadline and an exploding leather jumpsuit to enforce said deadline, and is sent off into the wilds of the presumably post-apocalyptic wastelands of, er, wherever this is meant to be set. It’s either Japan or the Wild West. I don’t know, and I’m not sure it knows.
Quite what transpires after this is, well, I’d argue not coherent enough to warrant much further scrutiny – something about Hero being the prophesied one to free a local settlement from some sort of curse, although of course, ultimately it’s all coming back to Hero taking on the Governor’s goons.
It’s all a mess of possibly supernatural, maybe just delirious fever dreams that Care goes through in typical Cage fashion, although for once his performance is outcrazyed by the rest of the visuals and narrative, which is a particularly inchoate blend of Mad Max, Yojimbo (or given the setting, maybe Last Man Standing), Blade Runner and whatever else was lying around, and for me at least it never really coagulates into anything either interesting or coherent. I’d have settled for one or the other, but having neither is a bit of a problem.
I’ve been tangentially aware that director Sion Sono has been making this sort of outré fare for the past few decades, but while I’ve had a few of his films on the ever expanding list of films to get round to (like Suicide Club and Tokyo Tribe), this is my first experience of his work, and it’s not at all positive. Well, okay, there’s a few visually arresting scenes here and some of the action is over the top enough to be mildly interesting, but that’s about it.
Look, I’m not going to roast this film, because I’m quite glad that it exists, and that there are still people making work at the outer limits of what’s deemed commercially acceptable. And I’m sure there will be some people who will be able to get a great deal out of this, even if it’s self evidently not going to find mainstream acceptance.
It’s just, well, the thing is, I’m normally exactly the sort of person who will like this deliberately weird, hyper stylised, fugue state narrative type thing – like all them Takashi Miike films what I done loved many a year ago – and if this is not my cup of tea, I’m left wondering whose thirst this drink is supposed to satisfy. My advice – watch the charmingly batty trailer and imagine a better film.
We’ve talked about three of director Martin Campbell’s films on this podcast before, and while we were really quite positive about his two Bond outings, GoldenEye and Casino Royale, the last time we covered him we were considerably less enthusiastic about the disappointing and tone-deaf Jackie Chan vehicle, The Foreigner.
The star here is Maggie Q, rescued from a bloodbath in Vietnam (the country, not the war) as a child by Samuel L. Jackson’s, Moody Dutton, a hitman who knows he’s a bad guy, but makes up for it by only killing bad people, and while that’s not exactly moral it’s certainly on a firmer footing there than The Foreigner’s “bombs are precision weapons, right?” (and also isn’t based on a book called The Chinaman, which very much is the issue). Moody becomes a new father to the child, Anna, and raises her as his protégé, and the two work together finding those who don’t want to be found, and offing them. (But they’re bad guys, OK?)
After an initial mission in which badass credentials are firmly established, Moody presents Anna with a new mission, though this time with the aim of simply finding a target. This target, though, seemingly doesn’t want to be found, or someone doesn’t want him to be found, at any rate, and Moody and Anna become the targets themselves.
Moody is taken out of the picture, and the protégé must become the master, and Anna must follow the trail back to Vietnam, somewhere she swore she would never return. Then there’s some fighting and some flirting and some fun, with some rather brutal deaths, and some truths are uncovered.
The Protégé is Campbell’s first film since The Foreigner four years ago, and it certainly hues somewhat closer to that than The Continuing Adventures of Wee Jimmy Bond, but it’s vastly more successful, and how could it not be? Samuel L. Jackson giving speeches, fun and flirty scenes between Maggie Q and Michael Keaton (just don’t think about the film asking you to believe the 70-year-old Keaton going toe to toe with Q and not being left a greasy smudge on the scenery), a decent story hook and some perhaps unremarkable but slickly-produced action sequences.
The film is slight – at times so thin it falls apart – but it’s a pretty fun ride for the most part. There are flaws, but the main one is the unnecessary flashbacks to show the childhood trauma that made Maggie Q’s Anna a badass: the film would’ve been much better served by swapping those out for more scenes of Anna actually being badass, especially because Q is both entertaining and believable in that role.
The Protégé is destined to be forgotten, and quickly, but it’ll satisfy pretty well while you’re watching it, and that’s just fine. There are certainly worse ways you could spend 110 minutes.
Stillwater sees Oklahoma roughneck Bill Baker played by, checks notes, Matt Damon? Well, alright then, if you must, whose daughter Abigail Breslin’s Allison is languishing in a Marseille gaol after being convicted of killing her girlfriend, a crime she denies. On one of his trips to visit, Allison gives Bill a letter to her lawyer, saying she’s heard third-hand chatter that someone has bragged about being the real killer. While that’s not enough for the lawyers to do anything with, it is enough for Bill to stay in Marseille and investigate.
That’s stymied a little by Bill not speaking much French, but he has some assistance from an acquaintance, Camille Cottin’s Virginie, who owes Bill a favour, and soon the two become friends, and more than that, despite the free-spirited theatre actress and the taciturn oilman having seemingly little in common. The investigation goes well, then poorly, with the suspect getting spooked and taking flight thanks to Bill’s botched attempts, but another opportunity presents itself months later that leads to Bill taking rather more extreme actions to exonerate his daughter.
To be clear Stillwater is a fine enough film, with a clutch of good performances and postcard-pretty visuals in places, but I just could not get into this at all. While I’ve read that the wider point of this is not the crime investigation at all, but a look at how Bill and Allison deal with their guilt about the situation and choices that got them to this point, I just don’t think there’s enough shown of Bill’s character to carry off, and as Allison is barely in the film that’s not much of a help.
At the risk of giving it a shorter shrift than it really deserves, I just don’t think I’ve got a great deal to say about Stillwater. It’s not really doing anything I dislike – the closest it gets is that initially Matt Damon seems a touch miscast but he’s a good enough actor to pull it off. It is, sadly, just not a film that could find any attack surface to get its hooks into me, so it’s hard to think of this as anything other than, y’know, fine. Which, curiously, makes it much harder to recommend than this episode’s demonstrably worse Prisoners of the Ghostland, which at least had a car-crash spectacle to it.
If Daniel Craig has faced a particularly truculent enemy during his tenure as James Bond it certainly isn’t SPECTRE; after five movies I’m not even entirely sure who SPECTRE even are, or what it is they actually aim to achieve beyond trolling Britain’s foremost fictional secret agent. No,
if he’s been the victim of anything then Craig, arguably the Best Bond, has suffered the wildest fluctuations in movie quality of any of his peers.
If you plot the relative qualities of these particular entries on a graph, you basically get a saw wave, and if you’re following my logic here you’d probably come to the conclusion that No Time To Die, Danny’s swan song as 007, is a “good” Bond movie, for relative values of good. And, in a
lot of senses it is. But it also isn’t.
At two and three quarter hours you might imagine NTTD would be a bloated affair, but when one considers the absolute mess of plot contrivances that director Cary Joji Fukunaga has the unenviable task of wrapping up it’s perhaps understandable he’d want to give himself a bit of
The plotting of No Time To Die isn’t all that complicated on paper, but one of my chief gripes is that the script, courtesy chiefly of this generation’s stalwarts Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, with a much-vaunted pass from Phoebe Waller-Bridge, makes a pretty good fist of making it feel an awful lot more labyrinthine than it really is. For the first time in my life I had to field a WhatsApp message from my mother asking for clarification of a Bond plot; something I was able to do in a short paragraph, yet Fukunaga et al seem to struggle to squeeze into two-and-a-half hours plus change.
For what it’s worth (which isn’t much), Rami Malek’s horrendously under-utilised antagonist Safin has designs on unleashing a DNA coded virus, enabled by a kidnapped scientist whose disappearance is perturbing enough to our old CIA friend Felix Leiter that he rouses Bond from
five years of retirement. Safin wants to use his technology to kill millions for [insert reason here], but first demonstrates its utility by turning it on his villainous comrades at Spectre, wiping out the entire organisation, including Blofeld, at a stroke.
As if this shit isn’t enough to be getting on with, it’s all tied into Bond’s relationship with Madeleine, played again by Lea Seydoux, with the pair’s relationship since the last movie somewhat soured by a resurgent SPECTRE framing her for their actions in this entry’s opening scenes, set five years prior.
For the most part NTTD doesn’t feel it’s length, which is probably an indication that I had a good time watching it. And I did; I did have a good time watching it, at least for maybe two thirds of it’s running time, and I have enough good will for Bond in reserve that I’ll take a slightly saggy back nine if the pay off is worth it. Which…well, I almost can’t believe I’m saying this, but I don’t think it is.
Fukunaga does a pretty good job of assembling the flat pack mess he’s inherited, and I kind of expected he would given prior form, including the first season of True Detective which remains an absolute high point of TV history in my humble opinion. However, I can’t help but wonder what
Fukunaga could have come up with if allowed to develop his own Bond story from a blank slate, because ladies and gentlemen if NTTD has one ace up its sleeve it’s that it leaves us with one very blank slate.
Technically the film exhibits all of the precision-machined competence one would expect to buy for such a budget, with great cinematography, sound design, scoring and, I dare say, catering. While the villains are dealt a pretty lacklustre hand in terms of character development there’s
enough time spent with Bond and Madeleine that I suppose I ought to have cared more about them. But I didn’t. I suppose too I ought to have been excited at the introduction of interesting new characters such as Paloma and Nomi. But I wasn’t. The death of a significant series favourite
two thirds of the way in? Meh. And of the movie’s final minutes, which seem to have been crafted solely with the aim of reducing me to a blubbering wreck? Well, I wasn’t. And I honestly can’t believe I wasn’t, and that’s how I know there is something wrong here.
To be clear: No Time To Die is a pretty good Bond movie, comfortably in third place among Craig’s entries behind Casino Royale and Skyfall in whichever order of preference you have for those two. The problem may not even be with James; maybe after the last 18 months I’ve just
changed too much. It isn’t you, Danny, it’s me.
Anyway, I left the cinema oddly unmoved by this final entry in the Daniel Craig Era, and while I can’t put my finger on it I just know that it isn’t right. There’s a good chance, I think, that Fukunaga may be asked back for the reboot. I hope so, but I also hope they let him do his own thing.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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