No Time to Die

4K ULTRA HD BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street Date 12/21/21;
Universal/MGM;
Action;
Box Office $158.62 million;
$34.98 DVD, $39.98 Blu-ray, $49.98 UHD BD;
Rated ‘PG-13’ for sequences of violence and action, some disturbing images, brief strong language and some suggestive material.
Stars Daniel Craig, Léa Seydoux, Rami Malek, Lashana Lynch, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Jeffrey Wright, Christoph Waltz, Ralph Fiennes, Billy Magnussen, Ana de Armas, David Dencik, Rory Kinnear, Dali Benssalah.

After nearly 60 years of cinematic history, audiences have a certain expectation of what a James Bond movie is supposed to be. No Time to Die defies a lot of those tropes.

The 25th film in the EON Productions Bond canon, No Time to Die serves as a coda to the Daniel Craig era of the character, a five-film arc that began with 2006’s Casino Royale. As such, it plays very much like a series finale, wrapping up a number of loose threads that interconnected the Craig’s films.

Most notably, the film finds Bond with the same love interest from the previous film, a first for the franchise. In this case, 2015’s Spectre had Bond retire from the British Secret Service and run away with Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux). No Time to Die picks up with their attempts to build a life together, a prospect hampered by her complicated past being the daughter of a top Spectre agent. When Bond assumes she arranged for Spectre to attack him on vacation, he puts her on a train and vows to never see her again.

Cut to five years later, and Bond is living in seclusion in Jamaica (a location iconic to the Bond franchise) when his old CIA buddy Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) recruits him to help retrieve a missing Russian scientist who is responsible for a biological weapon that can target the DNA of specific bloodlines.

Bond has a run-in with the British agent (Lashana Lynch) who took over his 007 number, and learns the weapon was originally developed by the British government. It has fallen into the hands of a man named Safin (Rami Malek), who wants to use it to cleanse the world of people he considers detrimental to his utopian vision. What’s worse, the answers to retrieve it seem to lie with Bond’s Spectre nemesis Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) and Madeleine.

Director Cary Fukunaga has delivered an entertaining Bond adventure filled with splendid action sequences, beautiful visuals and amazing set designs that evoke the great over-the-top villain lairs of yesteryear.

As both a capper to the Craig era and a milestone film for EON, No Time to Die is loaded with references to several previous Bond films dating back to the beginning of the series with 1962’s Dr. No, as well as Bond creator Ian Fleming’s novels. The film draws particular influence from 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, from Hans Zimmer’s terrific score quoting some of its music to Craig uttering the immortal line “We have all the time in the world,” which Bond fans know always foreshadows trouble ahead.

The Easter eggs should provide a serious blast of nostalgia for Bond fans without being distracting for viewers not intimately familiar with the entire history of the franchise.

Craig himself puts a memorable cap on a unique run for the character, in that all five of his films more or less tell a larger story of the life of a British superspy and his complicated love life. One interesting aspect of No Time to Die is that it is almost framed as a story told from Madeleine’s perspective, evoking the essence of Fleming’s The Spy Who Loved Me novel if not the plot itself.

The experiment of serializing the Bond movies certainly had its ups and downs, with the biggest complaint being that the films were too reliant on tracking Bond through missions that had a personal connection to him, from seeking revenge for fallen lovers to uncovering long-lost family secrets. While in retrospect the Craig saga plays fine for what it is, it’s hard to argue that the two best films in the sequence aren’t Casino Royale and 2012’s Skyfall, the only two films of the five that could be considered standalone adventures. Detractors will say the interconnectedness is just an attempt to modernize Bond by aping the Bourne movies. Fans would just as soon see Bond get back to duty carrying out just protecting the free world with fantastical missions he otherwise has no personal stake in.

While this is Craig’s swan song in the role, the movie does carry on the franchise tradition of promising that “James Bond Will Return,” which begs the question of where the series goes from here. I for one would be interested in seeing the series returning to its roots by going retro with Bond immersed in the Cold War in the 1960s.

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The No Time to Die Blu-ray presentation is a bit unusual in how the extras are presented. The 4K combo pack offers the extras on the 4K disc alongside the film, which the regular Blu-ray that is included has no extras. Most discs typically employ the reverse strategy, with minimal extras on the 4K disc and all of them on the Blu-ray.

The included extras consist of four behind-the-scenes featurettes and the 47-minute Being James Bond documentary that was previously released in the lead-up to No Time to Die and provides an intimate look at Craig’s history with the character. Being James Bond is exclusive to the 4K edition.

The making-of material totals about 35 minutes and gives a succinct EPK-style glimpse at the production. The longest is the 11-and-a-half-minute “Anatomy of a Scene: Matera,” which deconstructs one of the film’s pre-credits action scenes. The six-minute “Keeping it Real: The Action of No Time to Die” focuses on the film’s stuntwork, the eight-minute “A Global Journey” looks at the film’s shooting locations, and the 11-minute “Designing Bond” details the building of the film’s sets and costumes.

The standard Blu-ray combo pack and the DVD editions it seems have the supplements included on a separate bonus disc. Even keeping Being James Bond as a 4K exclusive, it’s only a handful of featurettes that would need to be included so it’s a bit baffling why they weren’t stacked onto the same Blu-ray disc as the film.

Also note that the included digital copy code is listed as redeemable through Apple TV/iTunes, but not Movies Anywhere, as MGM is not a signatory to the digital locker service.

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Aladdin (2019)

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street Date 9/10/19;
Disney;
Fantasy;
Box Office $354.53 million;
$29.99 DVD, $39.99 Blu-ray, $39.99 UHD BD;
Rated ‘PG’ for some action/peril.
Stars Will Smith, Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Marwan Kenzari, Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad, Billy Magnussen, Numan Acar.

Disney’s live-action version of Aladdin is essentially a beat-by-beat reconstruction of the animated classic, with a few key differences.

Like before, the story involves a master thief named Aladdin (Mena Massoud) who roams the streets of Agrabah yearning to find a purpose for his life, until he meets Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) when she poses as a commoner to escape the boredom of palace life. Aladdin’s exploits gain the attention of the kingdom’s Grand Vizier, Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), who forces Aladdin to retrieve a magic lamp from the Cave of Wonders, where touching any of the forbidden treasure inside will cause the cave to collapse (although playing with the magic carpet apparently doesn’t count as part of the treasure). But of course the forbidden treasure gets touched, forcing Aladdin to unleash the Genie (Will Smith) to escape. With his three wishes, Aladdin assumes the guise of a prince to woo Jasmine, further rousing the ire of Jafar, who wanted the power to make himself sultan.

A key difference from the animated version is the film attempts to give Jasmine a bit more agency with a bigger story arc, a handmaiden (Nasim Pedrad) and her own musical number, a song called “Speechless” designed to give her a bit more of an active role in the story than just sitting around waiting for her father to marry her off. And the “One Jump Ahead” number, used in the animated version to establish Aladdin’s character before he meets Jasmine, here is used after he meets her and his framed as his attempts to impress her by escaping the authorities.

Director Guy Ritchie injects a lot of energy into the early goings, but the film loses steam as it builds to its perfunctory conclusion, and just sort of rushes to finish the checklist of key plot points from the original version as it hastily wraps up.

The live-action Jafar comes across more as a shifty schemer than a truly menacing villain, and the film cheats a little in how it dispatches him because of how a few lines of dialogue were altered to make the final confrontation a little less concise.

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Fortunately, the film fares a bit better with the two relationships it needs to work: Aladdin and Jasmine, and Aladdin and the Genie.

Massoud makes for a charming Aladdin and shares a natural chemistry with Naomi Scott, so the love story manages to feel a bit more authentic. And they can do their own singing, which comes in handy for the centerpiece “Whole New World” magic carpet sequence (though the journey ends up weaving through some natural local splendor rather than the globetrotting of the original film).

And Will Smith does a great job as the Genie, which is no easy task considering how iconic Robin Williams made the character’s animated incarnation. Rather than try to compete with Williams’ memory, Smith successfully puts his own hip-hop infused spin on it.

So, while the live-action version isn’t going to supplant the animated version (freshly released on its own new 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray edition), it certainly proves entertaining enough in its own right. And how could it not? It already has the advantage of performing what has to be on the shortlist for consideration for the greatest Disney soundtrack of all time (there’s a reason the original film won two Oscars for its music).

Like a tribute band playing the hits, it’s never as good as the original, but you can still dance to it. And the film has the added benefit of original composer Alan Menken on board so that the subtle updates to the film’s sound don’t detract from the nostalgia.

The Blu-ray isn’t heavy on extras, but what is included focuses mostly on the music and how the filmmakers translated the animated version to live-action.

The two key making-of featurettes are a five-and-a-half-minute spotlight on Ritchie and his approach to directing the material (he also co-wrote the screenplay). A second, four-and-a-half-minute featurette focuses on Will Smith bringing the Genie to life.

The lengthiest extra is Massoud’s video journal, which runs nearly 11 minutes and offers an interesting look at filming select scenes from his perspective. It’s always fascinating to see how much of the sets they still bother to make anymore in an age of ubiquitous CGI.

There are also six deleted scenes running a total of 11 minutes that broaden the context of a few scenes in the film.

Separate from this is a two-minute deleted song sequence for a duet between Jasmine and Aladdin to sing while they are separated.

Rounding out the Blu-ray are a two-minute blooper reel and three music videos: the fairly straightforward “Speechless” by Naomi Scott, and a pair of bizarre covers of “Whole New World,” featuring Zayn and either Zhavia Ward or Becky G, depending on whether the female part is in English or Spanish.

As for digital exclusives, there’s a couple of good ones: a two-minute featurette about the staging of the massive “Prince Ali” number, and a four-minute look at creating the “Speechless” song for Jasmine.

Lionsgate Releasing ‘The Oath’ Digitally Dec. 28, on Disc Jan. 8

Lionsgate will release the dark comedy The Oath through digital retailers Dec. 28 and on DVD Jan. 8.

The film was written and directed by Ike Barinholtz, who also stars alongside Tiffany Haddish, Nora Dunn, Jon Barinholtz, Meredith Hagner, Carrie Brownstein, Billy Magnussen and John Cho.

The story involves a high-strung man named Chris (Barinholtz) and his more levelheaded wife, Kai (Haddish), learning that citizens are being asked to sign a loyalty oath. Their refusal to sign — along with the arrival of two government agents (Cho and Magnussen) — sends an already tense holiday dinner completely off the rails.

Extras include deleted scenes, a “Fake News or Facts” featurette, a “Turkey Day Trauma” featurette, a photo gallery and the theatrical trailer.

Game Night

BLU-RAY REVIEW: 

Warner;
Comedy;
Box Office $68.85 million;
$28.98 DVD, $35.99 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘R’ for language, sexual references and some violence.
Stars Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Billy Magnussen, Sharon Horgan, Lamorne Morris, Kylie Bunbury, Jesse Plemons, Chelsea Peretti, Danny Huston, Michael C. Hall, Kyle Chandler.

The premise behind Game Night is simple yet solid: A group of friends gets together to play some board games, only to have the party interrupted by criminals, involving them in a caper they believe to be a more-elaborate game.

And sometimes, having an entertaining time with a movie doesn’t have to be more complicated than that. Think of it as David Fincher’s The Game mixed with the comedic sensibilities of The Hangover.

The premise allows room to build jokes around the quirks of the characters, which only feeds the comedic potential of the premise further. It helps that there are multiple levels of where the game might end and real danger might begin, which makes for some hilarious moments for the characters when they don’t realize where that line is but the audience does.

Game Night was co-directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, the team behind the 2015 Vacation remake, for which this is a bit of a step up, and co-writers of amiable fare such as the “Horrible Bosses” movies and Spider-Man: Homecoming.

The cast is charming and the script knows just how long to push a story point before it wears out its welcome, making this a great movie for a cozy evening in or a diverting re-watch with friends in a casual setting.

The Blu-ray includes an effective but short four-minute behind-the-scenes featurette and a funny seven-minute gag reel.