SPOILER WARNING: this article features close discussion of many plot points in Spectre, including elements which take place at the very end of the film. We recommend reading this post only if you have already seen Spectre.
Spectre opens with a bravura one-shot sequence, made all the more amazing by the fact that returning director Sam Mendes keeps up the pace it sets until roughly one hour into this, the fourth outing for Daniel Craig as James Bond.
Unfortunately, having set off at a pace, tone and style which matches the Craig high points of Casino Royale and 2012's Skyfall, Spectre does not sustain them. What emerges is a film desperate to get back to the Bond formula of the later Connery films, and which does so, but which simultaneously sacrifices some of the hard work of the Craig films to somewhat reinvent the character. The cost of returning to Bond's roots, it seems, is to return to cliché, poor writing and tired genre and franchise tropes that were worn out long ago.
The opening hour though is golden, and worth close mention. We join Bond blending into the crowd in Mexico City at a Dia De Los Muertos celebration. As new-to-Bond cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema's camera tracks our hero through a crowd, into a lift, into a hotel room and out onto rooftops, the effect is spellbinding. As openings go, it is difficult to think of one that could have been more immersive. The sequence ends and the opening titles begin with an fight set inside a helicopter, something only marred by what looks like some slightly suspect effects work when Mendes shoots the outside-the-chopper fisticuffs in close up.
From here, Bond's motivations are set quickly and cleanly. Ex-M Judi Dench has left him a message and he is due at the funeral of now-deceased helicopter adversary Marco Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona). Christoph Waltz is introduced, there's a threatening, occasionally frivolous car chase through Rome and, all of a sudden, Bond is reunited with Mr. White (Jesper Christensen) in Altausee, Austria. A showdown of words, rather than violence showcases Craig and Christensen at their best (though we have seen similar before) and Bond is off again on the trail of White's daughter, Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux). Somehow an hour has passed. It's occasionally breathlesss, but Mendes finds time for fun (the involvement of a Fiat 500 in the Rome car chase is particularly great) and the quick, clean introductions of people like C (Andrew Scott), are handled with the right mixture of brevity and hinted depth.
Before he reaches White, Bond does find time for 'love' in the shape of Sciarra's widow, Lucia (Monica Bellucci). It's the first sign of the film's tentative steps around moulding the old franchise staples with the new Bond attitude, though the timeline of quite where the 'new' and 'old' meet is blurred in this particular case, especially in light of the previous Craig films.
Bond's seduction of Lucia consists of barely more than him saving her and breathing on her neck a few times. The moment is throwaway, of course it is: it only exists for Bond to receive more information to drive the plot onwards, but the modern Bond films have been keen in some ways to ensure that peripheral female characters, such as Lucia, are not the mirror of their status in the plot, something most readily seen with Eve Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), who features prominently in this film. This leaves a problem: how do you dispatch Lucia? Old Bond would have seen her killed by the enemy in some moment of carelessness by our hero, a trope still relied upon by Casino Royale, Quantum Of Solace and Skyfall. The conversation though, around female characters in Bond films, has moved on since even those productions and Mendes is clearly uncomfortable repeating both himself, the previous two Bond films and copious other moments where the character has sacrificed a female star to advance his own aims. Instead, Lucia is promised Felix Leiter as a solution, a character who doesn't appear within Spectre. The solution fits in terms of finally moving Bond on from this over-used plot device, and simultaneously absolving him of blame for whatever happens next, but it doesn't satisfy. Even Lucia, shot finally sitting up on her knees, looking at Bond from the bed, seems unhappy with her resultant limbo.
Meanwhile, in Austria, Spectre shows the first signs of losing momentum. Bond finds Swann exactly where White said she would be, proffers some double entendres and witnesses her kidnap at the hands of Hinx (Dave Bautista), a character previously encountered in the first of Spectre's overly graphic moments, gouging a hapless nobody's eyes out. Bond gives chase and we're back in familiar territory; our shining Mario is once again in need of rescuing Princess, who really he knows little about.
To skip forwards chronologically somewhat, the fact that Swann needs rescuing again during the finale makes at least one or the other of these instances feel extremely lazy. It's one of two specific points when Bond's writers, John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Jez Butterworth seem to forget this is a modern film and revert to really deep-rooted Spy genre and Bond clichés. The latter kidnap of Swann is the more egregious of the two abductions, happening off screen and transporting the character from London street to tied up in a chair, in a ruin, but the second of the writer's lazy miss-steps is arguably even worse.
In possession of new knowledge on the location of Oberhauser (Waltz), Bond formulates a bland plan which involves nothing more than walking straight into his lair. The resultant torture sequence (the second time the film needlessly goes too dark and graphic in tone) is as unsurprisingly inevitable as it is tired. No one seems to commit to the scene. Waltz apparently doesn't even bother to put his socks on. The execution is driven by the setup: there must have been a hundred ways to get Bond here. Why do we, and the writers, have to settle for such unexplained and thin laziness?
Heading backwards a few steps, Bond discovers the location of Oberhauser thanks to a mundane trip to Tangier with Swann and a subsequent train journey. It is during the course of these two segments when Spectre's soul is revealed as empty. It is the characters' first real chance to be alone, the first real chance for the writers to give us a reason to be interested in Swann, for Bond and her to become romantically linked. The sparks have stopped flying literally and can begin metaphorically. Instead both segments feel flat. In L'Americain, a hotel frequented by Swann's parents, she jokes that she's not simply going to fall for Bond because of a Freudian complex. Funny, if we the audience didn't know that that's precisely what will happen later on (and not much later on, as it turns out). During the train journey, another opportunity is passed up to learn anything about Swann. Instead, the dialogue returns to Skyfall, posing questions about Bond's literal and metaphysical existence. Is he an assassin, a person, how does he live, survive? We've been here before and advanced Bond beyond it. There was no reason to revisit it, no reason not to give the time over to Swann.
As it is, throughout the film, we are given little reason to care about Seydoux's character. Her performance is charming, emphasising the right lines of strength and intelligence, and managing grace without ever becoming objectified. But it is almost entirely without further meaningful support from the script to bolster her personality. Had she been killed at the end we would feel for Bond, but not for Swann herself.
The train journey the two characters embark upon sees another scripting miss-step that has been present (or rather, absent) throughout. Interrupted by Hinx, believably now operating as a lone wolf after Bond dispatched his men in Altausee, a Bourne-like close-quarters fight ensues (with obvious echoes to From Russia With Love), the finale of which is Bond causing Hinx to exit the train, by way of attaching him to some jettisoned cargo. There is a moment before Hinx is pulled to his doom. A Bond film is, of course, generally unable to let a pause sit. A one-liner must be offered. Hinx decides upon 'shit', the first, and last word of dialogue he delivers during Spectre.
There is a problem here in the wasting of Bautista. Had he been cast pre-Guardians Of The Galaxy, Mendes could have been forgiven for giving him limited room for 'acting', but in that film he showed that he can deliver at least monosyllabic laughs. Keeping him quiet makes his casting feel rotundly uninspired. The larger problem though is, of course, to do with the choice of witticism. If swearing in criticism is lazy, swearing in a Bond kiss-off is downright criminal, especially given the writer's attitude towards one-liners in every scene previously. Landing on a convenient sofa in Mexico, Bond says nothing. Kicking Sciarra out of the helicopter, Bond says nothing. Waving at a shady character in Rome: nothing. Pulling alongside Bautista's car whilst flying a plane: again, we're given no line. Why add such a mundane one in for Hinx on the train? Again, choices such as this affect tone and Spectre's is rarely consistent.
There is consistency in the main underlying theme, although the fact that Mendes struggles to directly link it to his hero is telling of the struggle to drag 007 into the 21st Century. Spectre has a healthy distrust of government and, as one newspaper review highlighted, a post-Snowden awareness of privacy. The introduction of Scott's character (who I will forever think off as being in charge of 'C-Unit', thanks to the inference of some great, classically risqué Bond writing) gives us a superior to distrust, M (Ralph Fiennes) now firmly on Bond's side. An earlier, throwaway, scene tells us that C has achieved his position through some form of relationship with the home secretary, again leading Bond towards the attractively liberal. The way this plays out in the script though leads Bond away from the zeitgeist of personal data. Instead, this baton is taken up by an honest element within the security services; M, Moneypenny and Q (Ben Whishaw). It works for the film, but claims that Bond himself has adopted this superhero-esque 'protector of the people' persona are overblown. The character's concerns within Spectre are never anything but personal; self-preservation, redemption, a happy ending and a closing of business. Happily, whilst he is about it, he stops Oberhauser's shadowy organisation.
And so to Oberhauser himself and to Waltz, who I must admit I had prejudged. Waltz, thanks mainly to his English language breakout turn in Inglorious Basterds, is the perfect, slightly overblown Eurovillain. For that reason, his casting in Spectre as the perfect, slightly overblown Eurovillain (for, of course, Oberhauser is revealed as Blofeld) always rubbed me as uninspired. In fairness to Waltz he gives this his all by not giving it his all. His turn is restrained and composed and in his first appearance in Rome he is correctly mysterious and deadly. But this is still not only a role that Waltz was sculpted for but also a role he has himself at least semi-parodied, in 2011's The Green Hornet.
The result is that, first appearance aside, Blofeld very rarely feels genuinely threatening. Where Le Chiffre and Silva, in Casino Royale and Skyfall respectively, each seemed to have Bond in a corner at some point, Blofeld never really does. His henchmen feel less like Bond cannon-fodder and more like Hunger Games soldiers; faceless protectors from some odd future where everyone seems to have joined a cult which allows you only to wear black jumpsuits.
It speaks to Blofeld as a whole who is the very epitome of Spectre's inability to know whether it is past or future and thus to do either adequately. By the finale, Blofeld has disintegrated into the sort of villain who prints out pictures of Bond acquaintances and leaves them around a shell of a building whilst waiting for Bond (and it) to blow up. Blofeld is presented to us as the head of the shadowy collection of internationally active villains we have encountered throughout the Craig films, but would any of those villains have resorted to this sort of play-school finale?
The character, of course, gets his just desserts, but his conclusion is again revealing of the film's approach as whole. Having forced his helicopter down, Bond could kill Blofeld (he is, after all, an assassin) but, harking back to an earlier conversation between M and C, our hero opts not to use his licence to kill and walks off into the distance with Swann. Like Lucia before him, Blofeld's kiss-off works for Bond, but not for the character left in the lurch.
Bond's walk away from his adversary is, of course, all about Craig, which is why it only just works for the film and does not work for Blofeld, who ends up feeling even more insignificant and throwaway than he already did. The point though is to allow Craig to walk into the sunset, should he so wish, and allow Bond to be reborn once again. By that point there is the potential that the secret agent may have worked out his place in the modern world but, then again, there is also the potential that we will have to sit through several more conversations about it, before all is revealed.
|'Director Andrew Jarecki is on stronger ground towards the start of All Good Things, where the Drama is more predictable and the layers less pronounced.'|
All Good Things is an odd film, one of those you rather feel 'got away' a little bit from those who tell it. There's a very specific type of film that seems to 'get away' from people. This, which at several points puts Ryan Gosling in very bad drag, qualifies as exactly that sort of film.
Interestingly, director Andrew Jarecki has recently made The Jinx, a documentary project which claimed to reveal the criminality of property tycoon Robert Durst, who, The Jinx claims, has had a level of involvement in the deaths of several of his acquaintances. All Good Things, released five years before that project, covers the same territory, this time looking at Durst through the lens of fictionalised Drama. In this case, Durst, his name changed for legal reasons to David Marks, is played by Gosling and his wife, Katie, by Kirsten Dunst.
Jarecki is on stronger ground towards the start of All Good Things, where the Drama is more predictable and the layers less pronounced. Gosling makes an effective put-upon family member for Frank Langella to berate, which he does voraciously and often. Katie and David meanwhile strike up a sweet romance, which leads them to establish the titular small shop where life seems happy.
At this point, as All Good Things begins to add its layers (Jarecki has already shown us Gosling in ageing make-up, narrating this story from the future), the director loses an element of control. Gosling in drag, for a start, is a little distracting, but the motivations for his character to do so are even more so. There are strong hints from the director that it's all to do with some sort of unresolved attachment to his mother, but the film really sidesteps around them, never committing to thorough exploration.
That becomes even more problematic once All Good Things reaches the point where it begins to infer about Marks crimes. Jarecki is potentially hamstrung by the legal situation, but he doesn't find a suitable narrative solution to say what he wants to properly and clearly, and the film eventually fades out in a generally unsatisfactory manner. It's good to see that the director has revisited the same story, apparently with a much higher level of success, but this early version is only worth investigating for completists of Durst history.
|'The quietness of Sivan's film has the effect of allowing you to entirely absorb into the narrative.'|
Presented in pin-sharp black and white, with only diegetic sound, Avishai Sivan's Tikkun (which means fixing or rectification) has been noted for awards at other festivals around Europe this year. It is, to some degree, easy to see why. Tikkun is a patient, patiently crafted film, with expertise by the bucketload and intrigue and invention in just the right doses.
'Dying' very early on in the narrative, Haim-Aaron (Aharon Traitel) is revived by his father (Khalifa Natour). The experience seems to bring about a change of heart in the young man, who we've already seen wavering in his approach to his orthodox Judaism. As one character puts it, Haim-Aaron has some 'nerve' to take 'two souls in a lifetime'. The second of these souls seems more interested in practical answers than the first and Sivan's film becomes something approaching a coming-of-age narrative.
The quietness of Sivan's film (at one point the snoring of a fellow festival-goer was audible) has the effect of allowing you to entirely absorb into the narrative. The expert camerawork from Shai Goldman adds to the effect (watch for the focus on individual pencil strokes early on), which gives you a route into the more successful parts of Tikkun. Haim-Aaron's father's visions, for example, (there seems to be something very wrong with the household plumbing) are beautifully realised, presented in near-silence and a perfect way to examine the ever-darkening thoughts around the family.
Some of the narrative though does feel rather plucked from a stock selection marked 'angsty young man discovers the world'. Haim-Aaron's journey is characterised by a series of increasingly awkward encounters with women and other less-threatening entities which start to feel very uninspired and a little empty of the thought the rest of the film displays. The visit to a brothel is so predictable it's almost tragic and I personally struggled to make the very graphic finale fit entirely with what I'd seen previously.
There is no doubt, however, that Sivan's film has huge skill, beauty and, at times, is successful in what it comes to do and say. Like most abstract festival-friendly pieces though, it loses its way on occasion and whilst I was certainly more absorbed than the man asleep, I can sympathise with those who struggled to find the message.
The 29th Leeds International Film Festival runs from 5th-19th November 2015 at venues around the city, including Hyde Park Picture House, Cottage Road Cinema and Leeds Town Hall. Tickets and more information are available via the official LIFF website.
|'As an entry into the zombie subgenre, Maggie is in many ways one of the most restrained seen for some time'.|
Considering much of his post-Governator return to making movies has seen him retreading ground of varying degrees of familiarity, it's at the very least refreshing to see Arnold Schwarzenegger involved in a film such as Maggie. Midwestern farmer Wade Vogel in many ways couldn't be much more different to the typical Arnie role: quiet, measured, even emotional.
There are times where this casting directly against type works well, and seeing Schwarzenegger attempt to widen the scope of his film catalogue is admirable. There are scenes here - mostly those shared with the excellent Abigail Breslin as Wade's titular daughter, slowly succumbing to zombification - where the Austrian Oak is anything but wooden. The sixty-eight-year-old Schwarzenegger's eyes regularly tell a story far more convincingly than any other element of the veteran's performance. In other scenes, however, it's hard not to feel that Schwarzenegger is simply out of his depth. The actor's career in the past has largely eschewed dramatic fare, and his performance in Maggie at times makes a convincing argument for this having been a very sensible decision. It's not that Schwarzenegger doesn't try, but there are scenes in which his performance is so deficient in authenticity that it pulls you out of the film all together.
Away from his leading man, director Henry Hobson's debut continues to prove an uneven experience. As an entry into the zombie subgenre, Maggie is in many ways one of the most restrained seen for some time. The horror and gore are largely absent for much of the running time, with Hobson still managing to create a palpable post-apocalyptic world that is consistently authentic and occasionally beautiful in it bleakness. The cinematography seen at points throughout Maggie is striking, and the washed out colour palette that Hobson uses for much of his film works to emphasise the desolate nature of the film's narrative.
Hobson takes his time telling the remarkably simple story related through John Scott III's script, an approach pleasing at times but frustrating just as often. There are moments where the director creates palpable tension out of almost nothing, but others where you'll wish he would cut out the ponderous approach and just get on with it. The fact that Hobson allows very little humour into his film also begins to take its toll after a while, with the relentless seriousness only broken up by one or two desperately welcome moments of lightness.
It's hard to know what to make of Maggie as a whole. There are suggestions throughout that the zombie elements of the narrative are in fact metaphorical of fatal diseases such as cancer - both through the way sufferers feel and how those close to them deal with the situation - but Hobson never seems all that interested in doing a great deal with this idea that hasn't already been covered better in a more straightforward way. Equally, whilst the film's treatment of a zombie apocalypse as a device feels somewhat original on the surface, it ultimately does very little that's truly different with the tropes and conventions of a subgenre arguably more prevalent in mainstream media than it ever has been. There's enough here to make Maggie worth watching, but Hobson's end product ultimately feels too inconsistent to be considered anything more than a partial success.
Maggie is released on UK Blu-ray and DVD on Monday 23rd November 2015, and is available on digital download now.
|'That the two men might be towards the end of their lives and gaining new perspective on a variety of areas is less hinted at by Sorrentino, more rammed down your throat.'|
Whilst in The Great Beauty director Paolo Sorrentino managed to find a great deal of clarity in amongst a lot of abstract thinking, in Youth he manages only to find a great deal of confusion in amongst some very obvious imagery.
Stuck in a purgatory-alike Swiss spa, populated by all walks of humanity (a very serious climber, a Buddhist monk, Miss Universe, Maradona), composer Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) and director Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) postulate on their past and their differing futures. Ballinger is being wooed by an emissary from the Queen who wants him to come out of retirement and conduct one more time, whilst Boyle is trying to put the finishing touches on a script for long time muse Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda).
That the two men might be towards the end of their lives and gaining new perspective on a variety of areas is less hinted at by Sorrentino, more rammed down your throat. Very early on Ballinger is shown walking across a great expanse of water whilst slowly sinking, with Miss Universe (Madalina Diana Ghenea) heading in the opposite direction. That is followed up by a litany of similar examples (lifts full of different ages of people pass each other, heading in other directions), to the point where you wonder if Sorrentino just forgot that he had included some of them.
As with The Great Beauty, the plot is largely unimportant to the musing, but it's interesting that, again, the director seems less sure of himself and includes several potential distractions for those who need some structure. The breakdown of Ballinger's daughter's (Rachel Weisz) marriage is one of the less successful ones (though it does give the opportunity for one of the most unexpected cameos of the year), whilst the research of young actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano, in career best supporting form) provides more promising ground and more interesting conversations.
The presences of Tree and Boyle though means that Sorrentino almost can't seem to help himself but comment on cinema itself, something surely to be avoided unless you've got something significant to say, reflected in the wider film. Youth does not feel like it has and the echoes of 81/2 (in both story and visuals) just make this seem a weaker piece by comparison. Boyle's eventual conversation with Brenda about cinema is, again, so heavy-handed and so laden with inference that you can't help but feel disconnected.
There are lighter moments (the aforementioned cameo gives Caine a great line about an insignificant person), including a fantastic joke about Maradona (Roly Serrano) and there is some really good stuff here, but most of it is hidden behind a layer of decidedly unsubtle 'thinking', which begins to grate long before the close.
Youth is released in UK cinemas on Friday 29th January 2016.
The 29th Leeds International Film Festival runs from 5th-19th November 2015 at venues around the city, including Hyde Park Picture House, Cottage Road Cinema and Leeds Town Hall. Tickets and more information are available via the official LIFF website.
|'For much of the tale the love triangle manifests itself in longing looks, stolen moments on the beach and the occasional cross word at breakfast. It's a very English disagreement'|
Before Dan Stevens moved into the business of killing people with his steely blue eyes, he was rather cast with his Downton Abbey type as somewhat foppish honest Joe, Gilbert Evans in Christopher Menaul's period tale of Cornish artists behaving badly, Summer In February.
The meaningless title and Steven's doe eyes hint at what lies within here. This is an aimless stroll along Cornish clifftops, perfectly pleasant in its own right, but lacking the drama required to take us out of Julian Fellowes country and into something more exciting. Menaul's film depicts, primarily, the love triangle between Gilbert, Edwardian artist AJ Munnings (Dominic Cooper) and the object of their affections Florence Carter Wood (Emily Browning), but does so as if it is relating a gentle snooze of a Sunday afternoon.
For much of the tale the love triangle manifests itself in longing looks, stolen moments on the beach and the occasional cross word at breakfast. It's a very English disagreement and Menaul feels disinterested in pushing anything further. The 15 certificate feels mainly gained thanks to Browning undressing in front of a mirror, apparently comparing herself to the voluptuous Dolly (Mia Austen), who models for the band of artists camped on the Cornish coast. If that was the route Menaul wanted to take, into a consideration of self-reflection vs artistic reflection then there might have been something here but, as it is, in isolation, it feels like an artificial attempt to give the film a 'hard' edge.
Meanwhile, exceedingly slowly, the film does build to a conclusion that could have had tragedy, if only the director and writer Jonathan Smith could have spent the time considering it in a more measured way. As it is, it feels at least partially unearned, artificial and unloved, leaving a passingly pleasant film with a slightly difficult to swallow final third.
|'Kapadia successfully creates a filmed tragedy out of what is, undoubtedly, a tragic story'|
Asif Kapadia's follow-up to the successful Senna, Amy uses the same techniques Kapadia relied upon in his 2010 offering, layering new interview audio over archive footage and stills from the paparazzi, TV and Amy Winehouse's friends and family.
As such, the film is open to some of the same criticisms Senna was open to. Whilst the backstory is well told by the archive footage, particularly that from friend's videocameras, capturing Winehouse at an early stage or even later on but thoroughly disarmed from hype and fame, there is value to seeing the input of present day interviewees. Kapadia maintains that the documentary simply sets out to tell the story, rather than assign some blame, but few would argue that Mitch Winehouse, Blake Fielder-Civil and Raye Cosbert do not seem to deserve some of the film's ire. There would undoubtedly have been value in seeing a documentarian push them on some of the issues and conflict points the film raises. Kapadia's chosen techniques deny us this.
What Kapadia does manage, however, is to successfully create a filmed tragedy out of what is, undoubtedly, a tragic story. Boiled down to simplistics, Amy Winehouse was a young, successful woman, who died in her prime. That is, by any definition, a sad and sorry thing and Kapadia ensures that you leave the film feeling that. There is a weight to Amy which, even though it likely does not rest with the viewer, will no doubt be felt by the time the DVD has finished playing. Kapadia successfully picks out several chances that seemed to exist to alter the course of Winehouse's narrative. He does not need to say why they were not taken, that they were not is enough and his style shows that perfectly.
The organisation involved in making a Documentary like Amy should also not be underestimated. With plentiful footage to choose and edit, and the new elements to layer over the top, choosing what goes where is less a task to complete, more a talent, which Kapadia and his team obviously have by the bucketload. You could argue that it's not something which you see on screen, but actually it is everything: a film this in sync with its subject does not happen without the meticulous organisation on show here.