Skyfall – Review

Skyfall (2012) 

Director: Sam Mendes. Cast: Daniel CraigRalph FiennesJudi DenchJavier BardemBen Whishaw.

Heralded as the Best Bond film in over a decade, or possibly even the best Bond film ever, accompanied by a series of positive feedback and reviews from early screenings and a marketing campaign that only a 007 film can have (before my screening I counted at least 7 different Bond-theme adverts!), Skyfall finally opens to the public.

Right from the word go, you can tell you’re in for something special: as we’ve now become accustomed, the opening sequence is absolutely spectacular. A never-ending chase, through the streets of Istanbul, along the labyrinthine corridors and over the rooftops of the Grand Bazar, and finally on a moving train, ending with a bang, literally! Bond gets shot from the distance and falls off from the moving train, over a bridge down to some deep waters below… How on earth can he have survived the fall is never really explain, but hey, who cares, it’s Bond, James Bond. Logic and plausibility should have been left outside the theatre, before coming to see the film. Later on there will be another impossible escape from a prison, which once again, will not be explained. But then again, the film moves so fast, that it almost doesn’t matter.

However the film never really reaches the heights of that first sequence in terms of action (almost as if the budget had been all blown on that). The other set-pieces throughout are pretty standard fights, shootouts and simpler chases. However what really makes this Bond quite special is its mood, its splendid cinematography (including an ingenious one-take-wonder-fight in silhouette against the backdrop of some flashing neon lights from some advert on a building in Shanghai), but above all, the central relationship between Daniel Craig and Judy Dench. It’s ironic that across all the 23 films, the 77 years old Judy Dench could possibly be my favourite Bond Girl. Ruthless, ice-cold, incredibly charismatic and this time vulnerable too. I will not spoil the ending (though you can see all the various twists coming miles away), but by the time the credits roll, she will be the real star of the movie.

Skyfall (Incidentally, for some reason I had missed the name of the house in Scotland and I cound’t quite work out the reason behind this title) also sees the return of Q (though as Bond rightly says it’s not really Xmas as far as gadgets go), this time as the new geeky young techy genius played impeccably by Ben Whishaw. It all makes me really hopeful for the next future instalments (apparently two more movies are already in the pipeline after this one, with the next one already in production ready for a 2014 release).

And of course no Bond is complete without its baddie and Javier Bardem is one of the best we’ve had in a while. Over-the-top as only he can be, Bardem shares a classic intimate scene with Bond which will be remembered forever: a brave scene, considering Bond’s history, but also brilliantly funny!

Despite the above mentioned sequences in Istanbul and Shanghai, British director Sam Menders decides to play most of the film at home and London is where most of the film takes place. It’s the London we all recognise, with its rain, its Millemiun Wheel, its Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, its Gerking skyscraper standing above the city-line and its iconic “tube” at rush hour which plays as the setting for another chase, though this one rather unremarkable (I must confess, the only fun for me this time was to try to recognise all the various stops).

The film gets more and more intimate, the more it unravels, something which is quite unlike any other Bond movie before, where usually the third act is reserved for the big reveal of a massive lair, or some secret base somewhere in some hidden location. This time  we end up in rural Scotland. Nothing wrong with that, of course. This is a more intimate 007 film, one that focuses more on personal relationship and people rather than dastardly plan from some evil master of crime. Having said that , there is something slightly under-whealming about this last 30 minutes and in the end I couldn’t help feeling a bit let down (especially given the fact that it ended in exactly the way I thought it would… Including the twist).However, we even get given a little bit of a hint into James Bond’s background, something which has escaped us for 23 film, and though it was all just a fleeting moment, it was also a nice welcome novelty into a character who we think we know much too well.

And of course, to complete the mix, we’ve got a shaken Martini, a splendid Aston Martin (with its music cue right from the 60s), the classic “Bond, James Bond” line and a couple of cold jokes (though we are still quite far from the Roger Moore fun-fest).

Daniel Craig, now on his 3rd outing (4th if you count his appearance with the Queen at the Olympics), inhabits Bond to perfection, whether he wears his tuxedo or not. The blink-if-you-miss-it moment where he adjusts his cufflinks right after landing on a smashed train is played to perfection both in terms of timing and tone. Never for moment I regretted I didn’t have Connery, or Moore, or Brosnam (I’m not even going to mention the other two…).Daniel Craig is James Bond!

Slightly shortchanged are the actual Bond Girls this time. Sévérine, played by Bérénice Marlohe is of course beautiful, but ultimately rather forgettable. Eve (Naomie Harris) is a much stronger character (I bet any Bond fan will be able to guess the twist much before it will actually be revealed), but I couldn’t help having a certain detatchment towards her and to be honest I could not care less whether she had lived or die.

In the end, this is one of the stronger Bond movies we’ve ever seen, though certainly not as Oscar worthy as the hype wants us to believe it is (though Judy Dench might get nominated and probably some technical nods will come its way too). It is enjoyable, tense, thrilling, always intriguing,  but I must say, it won’t be one of those I will watch over and over again (aside from that amazing opening).

7.5/10

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Review

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) 

Director: David Fincher. Writers: Steven Zaillian. Cast: Daniel CraigRooney MaraChristopher PlummerStellan SkarsgårdRobin Wright

Your appreciation and enjoyment for  this film mainly comes down to whether you buy into the story or not and whether you are you a fan of the original book (I should probably say books, since this is the first part of a trilogy). Unfortunately my answer to both questions is quite a drastic no: I know I am going to be quite unpopular with this statement, but I’ve never really fallen in love with the book and I in fact just don’t seem to be able to  find the appeal for the actual story itself. I find it quite derivative, exploitive, contrived and a bit heavy-handed to be honest. These exact same problems are translated (in fact even enhanced) into both film adaptations.

It’s probably unfair to draw comparisons with Niels Arden Oplev‘s 2009 version, but also unavoidable. There are of course similarities, but given the fact that David Fincher is directing, the US version is a lot more slicker and cinematic. It is also closer to the original book in many places, but, as always in condensing it all into a movie, it has lost some of its more polemical thrusts from Larsson‘s story and some of the details which made the characters so compelling. All for the sake of the actual crime/mystery plot (which let’s face it, it’s pretty bland for today’s standards and brings very little new to the genre). So in the end, not only the film suffers from the same problems of the book but by shrinking it all it has lost some of its more subtle subtext too.

I am not really saying anything new here: what works in books doesn’t necessarily work movies. For example, the film spends a long time setting up the two main characters who don’t meet until a good hour and 20 minutes into the story. And yet despite all this time Daniel Craig‘s character is just as elusive to the audience as it was at the beginning. That is an ongoing problem with Fincher’s movies. His usual cold approach to film-making and detachment from his characters makes it always very hard for anyone to empathise with anyone on the screen. Craig does bring some unexpected charm and a slight sense of humour to his character (something which was completely absent in the previous version), but it’s really not enough to make you care for his character, let alone for making you want to watch him again for the next couple of sequels (Fincher has recently announced his interest to direct both sequels back to back… But no official announcement will be made until this one get released, of course).

It’s Rooney Mara who really steals the show here (well, let face it, so did Noomi Rapace in the previous version. It’s a great part to play!). This is one of the performances of the year and there will certainly be nominations and awards for her coming left and right over the next few months. She even manages bring a certain realism to an otherwise over-the-top character by convey both fragility and an incredible strength, sometimes with pure simple looks.

However, did we really need that 1 hour and 20 minutes of preparation before these two characters meet? Did we really need to see the infamous rape scene? Yes of course, it’s that rape that gives her the motivation for wanting to solve the crime, but why couldn’t they just convey that with a quick flashback? Why was the audience allowed inside that room watching not only the rape but also her revenge to her rapist? Wouldn’t it have been just as effective and less exploitive if we had been left outside the door, maybe listening to the screams?

The problem is, if you take all that preamble out of the equation, you’re actually left with very little else because let’s face it, as a mystery this is a fairly derivative film.

As I said, these are all queries with the book and the story itself . Given the material Fincher has probably down the best he could. This is a handsome film, with some solid acting (Plummer once again is at his best!)  but in the end you’re left with a sense of “…so what?”.

I couldn’t help feeling that everything that Fincher did in this film, he had already done it before.

The dark tones of Se7en, the seedy  and multilayered atmosphere of Zodiac, the dark ominous  music (if we can call it that) by Trent Reznor from  The Social Network.

Finally it’s probably worth mentioning the impressive “James Bondesque” title sequence (again, Fincher has down beautiful title sequences before) to the notes of the cover version of  “Immigrant Song” by Led Zeppelin which I found absolutely mesmerizing and yet somehow seemed to belong to a different film altogether.

In the end this film adds very little to the previous version, aside from giving us the wonderful Rooney Mara, and certainly adds nothing to what I already know about David Fincher. I just look forward to seeing him handling a script and a story worth of his craft, because I do believe he’s one of the best directors out there right now…

6.5/10

The Adventures of Tintin – Review

The Adventures of Tintin – the Secret of the Unicorn (2011)

Director: Steven Spielberg. Writers: Steven MoffatEdgar WrightJoe Cornish. Stars: Jamie BellDaniel CraigAndy SerkisNick FrostSimon Pegg 

I should probably tell you straight away that I have been waiting for this film for about 3 decades! Yes I know, quite a bold statement which may give away my age, but it will also tell you about my level of expectations for this film. If then you add the fact that I’ve grown up watching Spielberg movies back in his golden years (obviously the 80s) and that I’ve also been an avid fan of all Tintin comics ever since I was a little boy, you can probably get an idea of the kind of palpitations I had when I sat into the theatre and wore my 3D glasses. Having said all that I will still try to give an unbiased and honest review as much I possibly can, praising the (many) merits of the film but also highlighting some of the faults which in my option prevented Tintin from being the masterpiece I really wanted it to be.

For a start I was very  pleased to see how respectful Spielberg was with the handling of the original material. After all, this is the man who wanted to turn Harry Potter into an American, combining several books into one (A bad, bad, bad idea Steven!). The story of this film actually combines several of the Tintin books: ‘The Crab with the Golden Claws’ (in which Tintin befriends Haddock and saves him from smugglers) and the two-parter ‘The Secret of the Unicorn’ and ‘Red Rackham’s Treasure’ (which is the core of the story about the search for the lost treasure). There are also some very small elements and secondary characters from other stories too, but as far as taking liberties that’s where Spielberg stopped. Everything else is precisely how the Belgian creator, Hergé had imagined it: with that same sense of adventure, mystery, intrigue, action and fun. In other words the same mood and atmosphere that made the comics so successful  (at least in Europe) and incidentally, in a way those same elements that were also at the centre of one of Spielberg’s classic, Raiders of the lost ark.  It’s not surprising that Hergé himself, after seeing that film back in 1981 thought Spielberg was the only person who could ever do Tintin justice.

Spielberg pays homage to Tintin’s creator right from the start, not just in the beautifully design title sequence (reminiscent of the one from Catch Me If You Can), where he show us so many elements from all Tintin stories, not just in the colour palette he chooses for the cinematography of the film or in the way each character’s face looks, but he even goes as far as having Hergé himself appearing as a street artist drawing a portrait of Tintin the way we are used to see him in the comics: pure genius!

On the whole I must say that I wasn’t as bothered as I thought I was going to be by the motion capture animation. In fact you stop worrying about it about 5 minutes into the film. The characters look more cartoony than realistic and that helps getting away with the fact that their eyes (especially Tintin’s) are slightly dead. This is first and foremost still an animated film (I can place a bet right now that it’s going to be nominated at the Oscars next year, and probably it’s going to win one too!). One thing is for sure: it does look magnificent! From the moody dark shadows reminiscent of those film noir from the 40s, to the great vistas straight out of a David Lean classic, the impeccable cinematography (Spielberg is even credited as Lighting Consultant) is not just beautiful but impressive and atmospheric.

Spielberg in his first animated venture (and his first use of 3D too!) looks like a little boy who’s just been told he can do what he wants for his birthday: he appears to be liberated from any restriction he may have had on a normal feature film and seems to have a lot of fun in finding new beautifully inventive ways to transition from one scene to the next  in a way you could only do in animation (or with a lot of very expensive CGI): Spielberg’s camera floats, glides, flies, moves through glass, shoots straight into mirrors and gives us views which would otherwise been virtually impossible and yet, most of the times it’s never showy, it’s never forced or indulgent (in the same way,it wasn’t forced in ET, when the camera never showed us any adult – mom aside – for most the film and yet it didn’t make it annoying… In fact most of the audience didn’t even notice).

It’s like watching a master at work who knows exactly where the camera should be at which time. It all culminated with one of the most impressive and perfectly executed chase sequence ever portrayed on screen. Impressive not just because of its pace and its edge-of-your-seat thrills, but also for its meticulously choreographed  technique: in fact it takes place in just one impossibly-long shot, which adds to the tension and to the sense of fun. If you ever wondered why didn’t they just film the whole thing for real, that sequence alone (which by itself is worth the price of the entire ticket) should serve you as an answer.

I just wished that same tension and fun of that sequence had been present throughout the rest of the film. Don’t get me wrong, this first adventures of Tintin is a roller coaster ride like few others. Essentially it’s one action set piece after another, and yet somehow I felt there was a strange tendency to resolve problems much too quickly. It’s almost as if Spielberg was so preoccupied to get us to the next action sequence that he almost forgot how to makes  like the one we were watching. I give you a few examples:  a chase sequence at the front of the film, ends much too soon before it has time to climax. Later on there’s a scene where Tintin has to steal a key from a bunch of sleeping goons. A lot of time is spent setting up the dangers and then just when the sequence is about to get fun, Tintin gets the key. There’s another scene where Tintin faints close to the propellers of a plane and once again he gets saved much too quickly.

Whatever happened to those classic Spielberg action sequences that were so tense despite being so simple? I’m thinking of Indy trying to get the antidote to the poison he’s just drunk as the little bottle gets kicked around a room full of screaming people in the Temple of Doom, or fight sequence by the plane in Raiders, or even the glass breaking sequence in the otherwise weak Lost World? (In fact they are too many to even mention).

The pace of the film is strange and a bit uneven. It has moments of long exposition (this is a fault that comes with the source material to be completely fair), then lots of little short action scenes (as I said, slightly too short to feel important. I would have rather had fewer set pieces but longer in their execution) and sometimes it’s even anticlimactic (I’m thinking of the last 10 minutes of the film for example). I don’t think it’s necessarily an editing problem. Since this is animation, there isn’t a lot of extra material that can be added to add tension to scene.

I  am probably picking needles because as I said before I love these stories (and the story-teller) way too much.

The comedy aspect of the film is a bit of a hit and miss: the Inspector Thompson and Thomson are obviously aimed at the younger crowd, but they’re also the weakest characters (we had a glimpse of that in the trailer itself, as one of them falls off the stairs: a scene which in the theatre where I was, full of kids, was received with dead silence), on the other hand Captain Haddock is perfect. I don’t know whether it’s the script, or Andy Serkis’s performance or both, but most of the jokes around him seem to work perfectly. Same goes for the little dog Snowy who is in almost every scene of the film, even if just in the background licking a massive bone in the desert. The audience I was with seemed to love him and so did I.

And finally Tintin himself which in this whole 3D world is probably the most two-dimensional character. Aside from the fact that he seems to get a kick out of solving puzzles and getting into adventures, we know very little about him. I’m not really blaming Spielberg for that, this exactly how Tintin was in the comics, but I do wonder if some character development would have been really seen as sacrilegious by the hard-code fans. Certainly not by me.

Finally I feel I should say a few words about John Williams score, the first one in years (especially if we dismiss the very forgettable one for the 4th Indiana Jones). There’s a very quirky and weird title music (which never really seem to play out throughout the rest of the film) which is the most un-Wiliamesque theme in a while. It’s certainly not bad, but it feels slightly detached from the rest of the film. The Star Wars title music was never repeated throughout the movies either, and yet it felt part of the score. This title music feels like it belonged to can other film (in fact it felt like a non used cue from “catch me if you can”). It’s hard to review the score, because for most of the film I felt it never really had the time to breathe as much as it should have. The comic cues suffered more than the others (the ones for the Inspectors for example), as they were covered by the dialogue and the rest of the sound effects to the point where I even wondered whether any music was needed at all. In fact on the whole I felt there was way too much music in the film (in fact there was hardly a moment without) and yet it had very little time for the music to shine. Having said that, I was still able to hum some of the Tintin action tunes once leaving the theatre… and that’s always a good sign.

To recap, I think Tintin has definitely legs for a sequel and even more than just one. It is a solid action-packed fun-ride for the whole family which is not as loud, dumb and insulting as some of those Pirates of the Caribbean films were (especially the latest sequels). It’s proper film-making with the heart in the right place.

I’ll be looking forward to the next one, even if I am very aware I have now passed the average age of the target audience…

7.5/10

Check out my other reviews of movies by Spielberg: Raiders of the lost art, ET The Extra-Terrestrial, War Horse

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