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

J. Edgar – Review

J. Edgar (2011) 

Directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Dustin Lance Black. Cast: Leonardo DiCaprioJosh HamiltonGeoff PiersonNaomi WattsJudi DenchJeffrey DonovanDermot Mulroney

I am finding really hard to find something good to say about this latest dull dull dull film by Clint Eastwood. I am actually even beginning to think that it’s probably time for Clint to enjoy his retirement, instead of giving us every year a film which borders between the cheesy, the flat and most crucially the rhetorical propaganda! I am sorry to say this, because I love the guy as a person, but let’s face it, both Invictus  and (especially) Hereafter were real stinkers

As far as J. Edgar is concerned behind the thin patina of gloss, the actual true fascinating story and an impressive cast, there is otherwise very little to enjoy.

Eastwood directs it all almost by numbers, as if he wasn’t even there, without any visual flair, any care or attention for details, any subtlety, or  worse any real ideas or anything to say.

Every decision behind the making of this film seems to have been wrong one: the decision to break the film up, flashing backwards and forwards makes it too complicated to follow and keeps the audience emotionally detached for at least the whole first half. The decision to allow Eastwood to recycle his usual plain piano notes soundtrack, which sounds exactly the same as every other one of his films and actually here is used in the most cheesy possible way to its worse effect. The decision to have J Edgar Hoover telling the story of his life to a biographer (my God, can it all be a bit more obvious please!?), but most crucially, the decision to have Di Caprio & Co acting with (not very good) prosthetics for half of the film thus forcing the audience to get constantly distracted by the bad hair lines, the dodgy fake wrinkles and the rubbery feel on people’s faces. I must have spent half of the film looking at the make-up thinking “God, this is bad” and even when sometimes I though “mmm, this is a bit better…” I was always aware of it. Even when you look at the publicity stills from the movie (the picture above this review) you can see tell how fake the hairline is. In an age of seamless CGI (look at the ageing effects of Benjamin Button!!) I am surprise to see such shoddy  work (hopefully it’ll look alright on DVD, but on the big screen I saw this, digitally projected, it all looked incredibly ropey).

I am usually a huge fan of Di Caprio: I loved him since  “A Boy’s life” when he upstaged even Robert DeNiro (in a time where DeNiro was actually still good), he was absolutely amazing in “What’s Eating Gilberg Grape” (to this day one of my favourite films), I thought he was one of the most mesmerizing Romeo in  Baz Lurhman’s “Romeo + Juliet“, I even liked him in Titanic (in fact, I think, special effects aside, some of the success of that film was because of his ability to draw us in.. and to draw millions of little girls back to see the film over and over again). He was great in the Aviator, the Departed and he even managed to bypass the fact that he had a baby-face in both Catch me if you Can and Revolutionary Road, just because he was so good in both! But on “J.Edgar” Di Caprio is forced to spend half of the film covered in that damn thick prosthetics which prevents him to convey any real emotion to his character. I felt like I was always watching Di Caprio in a fat-suit as opposed to J.Edgar.

To be completely honest, it’s not all his fault. Eastwood ‘s direction jumps from scene to scene, sometimes quite randomly, trying to cover as much ground as possible from the undoubtedly intriguing real life. There are way too many characters, too many story lines, most of which are left hanging without a real sense of place and eventually the emotional focus of the film gets diluted and any understanding of his character gets lost.

There are some potentially very strong moments: for example the relationship between J.Edgar and his domineering mother (the always very watchable Judi Dench) and the sexual tension between Di Caprio and Armie Hammer, are both potentially very strong, however in the hands of Eastwood they all fall into schmaltzy and clichés as those cheesy piano notes tell us “a now, watch out… this is going to be emotional”. It’s all handled so badly that it even kills a potentially good performance like the one by Di Caprio.

The rest is just a hollow mess where characters come and go without leaving any real mark: we never really know why Naomi Watts‘s character decides to stick with J. Edgar right until the end, we never really get a grip on the procedures that made finger prints database possible, we never really get a sense of what could have happen if the real J.Edgar had been exposed and while all sorts of lawyers and politicians appear and disappear in a seemingly random succession we are getting more and more lost in irrelevant subplots.

It could have been a fascinating story: a closeted gay, the first director of FBI, a man who lived through presidents like Truman, Kennedy and Nixon. There could have been so much here and yet it’s all wasted in bad storytelling, staging and wrong choices at every turn.

I blame the direction, the script (surprisingly the same person who had penned the quite gentle and a lot more subtle Milk),but also the editing: obviously a lot has been cut out trying to condense 50 years into 137 minutes. But instead of loosing entire subplots and deciding to make it all more focused, somebody made a terrible decision to actually have it all in. The first 20/30 minutes are some of the most disjointed and messy I’ve seen in any film recently.

It would probably deceiver even less than a 5/10 rating, but some of central performances are quite good, despite everything else around them.

5/10

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