Thursday, 15 November 2012

Skyfall



Hailed by critics as one of the best Bond films ever, with many critics (including Ebert) giving it four stars (out of four), Skyfall may be the most overrated film of the year. I read a number of the glowing reviews to see what I missed but found nothing at all which would make Skyfall a great film.

Don’t get me wrong. Skyfall is a very compelling Bond film, with a long list of strengths. Unfortunately, it also has a long list of flaws, more than enough to drop it well out of four-star range. 

Let’s start with the strengths. The 23rd Bond film features some of the best acting found in any Bond film. Daniel Craig makes a very good Bond and he is at his best in Skyfall. Then there’s Judi Dench as ‘M’. In previous Bond films, Dench has had a relatively minor role. Not so in Skyfall, where she gets almost as much air-time as Craig. That her performance is top-notch is just par for the course for Dench. I also enjoyed Ben Whishaw as Q. And of course there’s the villain of the piece, Silva, played by Javier Bardem in a way that only Bardem could pull off. Great stuff.

I particularly enjoyed the overall dark atmosphere of Skyfall, which is aided by the fact that Skyfall features less action and more dialogue than most Bond films. Since much of the dialogue is both intelligent and entertaining (I particularly appreciated the debate about espionage), Skyfall could easily have been a special Bond film. With Sam Mendes at the helm, it should have been a special Bond film. And for much of the very strong first half of the film, I was thinking the critics got it right. Thomas Newman’s score is also excellent, and uses the old Bond music, which I appreciated. The locations are always a highlight in Bond films and that remains true in Skyfall, and the cinematography is outstanding. 

So with all this great acting and dialogue and so on, what’s the problem? Well, you may have noticed that I have yet to mention the plot. It’s not worth mentioning. I don’t care how good the acting and production values are if there’s no story to go with it. Revenge of a former spy against ‘M’ for past wrongs? Can you hear me yawn? Still, the thin plot might have been forgivable in a film that also highlights Bond’s childhood and his relationship with ‘M’ if it were not for the ridiculously convoluted ‘Christopher Nolan over-planning syndrome’, the horrible ending and Skyfall's attitude toward violence.

(Minor spoiler alert!) At one point, Silva apparently comes up with a grand scheme to get caught, a scheme that has exactly one chance in a billion to succeed, but somehow Bond does precisely what he needs to do at every moment to make it work. That scene (involving the death of a woman) is disgusting in every way and one of the worst scenes I have seen in a long time. As for the ending, Bond’s scheme to catch Silva is both ridiculously risky and utterly pointless. I loved the Scottish highlands setting, the allusions to Bond's childhood and the two buildings used for the finale (and watching Albert Finney), but what a waste when used for the predictable, stupid and violent showdown.

The violence is of course always a problem in Bond films, but I was particularly offended by the way some of the violence was designed to elicit laughter (not a Bond first). For me, despite its many strengths, Skyfall does not come close to Casino Royale. Still, like I said, it was a compelling Bond film and is worth at least ***, verging into ***+ territory. My mug is up.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Argo



Ben Affleck continues to grow on me as an actor and a director, though I still think he is much better at the latter. In Argo, Affleck stars and directs a film about the rescue of six American hostages in Iran in 1980 (Affleck plays the CIA agent who masterminds the rescue). Despite the fact that we know how it ends, Affleck plays this story for suspense and laughs. Amazingly enough, they both work, making this a very watchable true story.

To play the six hostages, Affleck seems to have gone for lookalikes to the actual hostages. The result is satisfactory but none of those actors stand out and Affleck succeeds only because he doesn’t stand out as unsatisfactory. Bryan Cranston and Victor Garber do well in supporting roles, but the real film-stealers are Alan Arkin and John Goodman, who are often hilarious as a film producer and make-up man who help provide the cover story that the hostages need to leave Iran (namely that they are a film crew checking Tehran out for locations for the space opera, Argo). 

Argo features handheld grainy camera work that doesn’t impress but at least it doesn’t seriously distract (in other words, given the nature of the film, it works well enough). The greatest strength of the film is Chris Terrio’s expertly-crafted suspenseful screenplay, which begins perfectly by making it clear that the U.S. really messed things up in Iran by supporting the oppressive Shah and then giving him a safe haven after the Iranian revolution in 1979. So the U.S. was partly responsible for creating the perfect environment for a hostage situation.

Unfortunately, it is not so clear that the rest of the film sustains this politically wise beginning. By the end, when Iranian soldiers are desperately trying to catch the hostages, there has been far too much emphasis on the nasty Iranians. At a time when there is so much tension between the U.S. and Iran, I am left wondering whether Argo poured oil or water on the flames of that tension. As a result, I cannot consider giving Argo more than ***+. My mug is up but I’m not sure if the contents will sit well in my stomach.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Lincoln



I couldn’t pass up a free advance screening of Steven Spielberg’s new film, even if his last effort (War Horse) was disappointing. After all, as I’ve mentioned before, Spielberg has more films in my top 150 than any other director and that’s got to count for something. Even so, I went into the theatre with low expectations for Lincoln, my greatest fear being that a Spielberg/Disney collaboration, following the melodramatic War Horse, would idealize Lincoln as the great American hero who abolished slavery.

Well, thanks to my low expectations, I enjoyed Lincoln much more than I thought I would. My fear was well-deserved, because Lincoln was indeed idealized exactly as I feared he would be (though he was portrayed as somewhat manipulative), but Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance as Lincoln was so brilliantly flawless (surely this is a guaranteed Oscar nomination) that it was just a nonstop pleasure watching him work. And it wasn’t just Day-Lewis. Spielberg managed to assemble an incredible ensemble cast, featuring actors like Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, John Hawkes, David Strathairn, Hal Holbrook and many many more. This is a dialogue-heavy long film, so there are a lot of lines to spread around. I love dialogue-heavy films and the acting was uniformly excellent, so this was great fun.

Lincoln is in colour, but it's so desaturated, dark, grained, and bluish-brown that it almost feels black and white. No complaints. The cinematography seems perfectly suited to the subject matter. 

Lincoln takes place almost entirely in the month of January, 1865, during which Abraham Lincoln, in the last months of the Civil War, tries to get the thirteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution passed through Congress. It will not be easy, with many obstacles to overcome, but the biggest threat he faces is peace. The Confederates have sent a delegation to negotiate a peace settlement which will make it almost impossible to get the amendment passed. What to do? 

The melodrama which plagued War Horse was occasionally evident in Lincoln though not nearly as blatant. But at least War Horse had an anti-war feel to it. Lincoln, while clearly depicting the horrors of war (like Saving Private Ryan), seems to suggest that no price is too high to pay for the abolition of slavery, for freedom! I do not share that sentiment. There are many things worth dying for, but nothing at all that’s worth killing for (IMHO), even freedom. I would argue that the legacy of the horrific Civil War has haunted the U.S. ever since. The use of violence always results in more violence. But enough with the sermon.

If Lincoln had engaged me more on an emotional level, I might have been tempted to give it four stars. It was clearly trying to make that engagement, but the whole process felt a little to neat and unimaginative, though on the whole I think the screenplay was very well done. A solid ***+. My mug is up.