Friday, 26 October 2012

Skyfall, dir. Sam Mendes, wr. John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, st. Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Bérénice Marlohe, Albert Finney, Judi Dench

Another Bond film and expectations are perhaps at their loftiest. It's the 50th Anniversary of the film franchise and, still amped from a glorious Summer of patriotism, there is an expectation that now more than ever, the British film industry must deliver. The news that Sam Mendes was to helm Bond's 23rd outing was met with quiet confidence who yearn for the spy films of yore. Hardly an experienced action-film director, Bond fans however also know that even as an institution grows and evolves, mistakes can and still occur. The spectre of Marc Forster's Quantum Of Solace is a mere one degree of separation away. The hope was that Mendes, given his acclaimed background in Drama both on-screen and on-stage, would certainly stimulate our minds even if he fell short of quickening our pulses.

It is important therefore to begin by saying that Mendes does both, fluently, with purpose, and with a series of low-key nods to the sea of disparate styles and moods the Bond series has laid down over the years. After a bungled mission to apprehend a suspect attempting to flee with a hard-drive of all known NATO agents - via a breathless, joyously familiar pre-credits sequence - we find Bond MIA, enjoying a fortuitous sabbatical as he nurses an injured shoulder with no clear intent of returning to the fold any time soon. A terrorist attack on MI6 soon triggers the Pavlovian call to Queen and country, and it's not long before he's giving chase once more. His toxicology report might exhibit a dependence on pills and booze, but there's that almost reckless addiction to single-minded pursuit that's lurking just below the surface that Craig's made his Bond's defining feature. Physically, he's as buff as ever. Bond seemingly aces the tests that decide his re-insertion into the field, but for perhaps the first time, we are shown that no amount of exercise or experience can re-vitalise an ageing body or mind. MI6's methodology is being called into question by the chairman of the Intelligence and Security committee Gareth Mallory (Fiennes), a bureaucrat intent on mothballing M (Dench, ever marvellous) and her old-school ways. With confirmation that The Wire and Luther actor Idris Elba has met with Barbara Broccoli, evolution is clearly on people's minds, both on and off-screen. Times are uncertain indeed. 

It seems fitting then that we're presented with something of a retro-villain in Javier Bardem's wonderfully unhinged portrayal of Roaul Silva, Skyfall's antagonist. Like the entirely fittingly traditional if unadventurous title song performed by Adele, Bardem's Silva seems to tie in with the feeling of herritage's last hurrah. It's a good hour before we even get to see Bardem, his peroxide hair and nonchalant Bane-like swagger marking him out as one of the more memorable Bond villains in recent years, and although there are several memorable scenery-chewing confrontations with him - in particular, a suitably creepy first meeting with Bond that suggests Silva wants to be, beat up, and be in Bond all at the same time - there's nothing particularly memorable about Silva's inevitable demise. Such is the price of convention. Elsewhere there's a welcome return from Q Branch as Ben Whishaw inherits the mantle with quiet dignity and intelligence, and Bérénice Marlohe as Sévérine suggests real inner terror behind the glamourous exterior as Silva's moll, a former child-sex worker, whom, it is implied, has developed Stockholm Syndrome towards her captor. Thomas Newman inherits scoring duties from David Arnold who had his hands full with MDing the Olympics, and produces a typically sonically busy and intricate palette, including a gorgeous and stately Barryesque horn motif that harks back to Connery-era Bond. 

But this always has been about Daniel Craig. The craignotbond websites now a distant memory, he has arguable done more for the character since Sean Connery, and in Skyfall, we have his most personal story to date. Far from an exhaustive psychological case study, we are given enough information about Bond's history to preserve his humanity and distance us from viewing him as the cold-blooded killing machine we were always threatened with merely seeing him as. Success then. Mendes has crafted a thoughtful, exciting and faithful Bond film that both honours the institution as well as laying the foundations for progression. Craig is signed on for two further films, the handover has begun, but Skyfall reminds us of the importance of lineage as an integral part of future success.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Ruby Sparks, dir. Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris, wr. Zoe Kazan, st. Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Antonio Banderas, Annette Bening, Steve Coogan, Elliott Gould, Chris Messina

Grand-daughter of the great Elia, Zoe Kazan has written an inoffensive, sporadically charming, fleetingly perceptive story about Calvin Weir-Fields (Dano) a writer facing Difficult Second Album syndrome, who finds a second wind (and a second chance at love) with the very real corporeal arrival of his fictional muse. That Ruby Sparks or 500 Days of Summer 2: Five Hundreder doesn't really do anything that Spike Jonze's Adaptation or Marc Forster's Stranger Than Fiction hasn't already done with more wit and conviction isn't to detract from some genuinely amusing sequences, particularly between Calvin and his brother Harry (Messina), and some joyfully wry couplets of dialogue. But the main problem with the film doesn't stem from Kazan, who ably channels her inner Zooey, but with Dano, who observes Calvin's narcissism too acutely to allow any of his endearing neuroses to come through. There's a sense, around the film's second act, when it seems the movie might spiral away from the cleverly-orchestrated celebrity-lineage love-in it's unashamedly promoting itself to be (Dano and Kazan are an off-screen couple and serve as Executive Producers), but the simplicity and wonder of overlaying the naturalistic and fantastical as an explanation for Ruby's sudden appearance from the typewriter ink, dissolves as the final part of the film wraps up in all the ways you hope it wouldn't.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Looper, dir/wr. Rian Johnson, st. Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, Piper Perabo, Jeff Daniels

Twice in Rian Johnson's richly visualised and conceptually laden film do his characters make reference to time out explaining the mechanics of time-travel as being, quite literally, a waste of time; it's a maddeningly transparent carte-blanche to play vast and loose with twisty sci-fi narrative, whilst simultaneously, cleverly, a wry nose-thumbing at pedants who impassively reject artistic merit on the grounds of illogical thinking. It's a gamble no doubt, but Looper's peppy non-linear storytelling, intricate found-object score from Nathan Johnson, and memorable turns from its stars more than earns its knowing-cool status.

Featuring effective (though not entirely successful in some quarters) prosthetics that lend Gordon-Levitt's Joe Simmons an angular comic-book look, our hero plays a Looper of the title, a freelance assassin in 2044 employed by a criminal conglomerate in 2074 to dispose of the human targets they send back in time to their staff. When the organisation decides to terminate a particular Looper's contract, his future self is returned to the past for elimination - 'closing the loop' it is called - , a rack of gold strapped to his back, and a sacrificial hood covering his head. Then, a bit like McNulty's dismissal party at Kavanagh's, your colleagues help you celebrate your retirement as you look forward to thirty years uninterrupted partying, before your pre-planned demise. Interestingly, Johnson has Joe played as more of a morally ambiguous willing participant in the game, rather than a victim of his own Faustian predicament. The urban decay and sociological degradation of 2044 parallels certain 21st century attitudes we might have that involve tying on the blinkers and drinking and dancing our way towards an irreparable end, whilst all around us, things fall apart. Part of Joe's behaviour can contextualised through the character of Abe (Daniels), a '74 mob lieutenant sent back through time and entrusted to regulate the Loopers. There's much of the gruff, advice-dispensing father-figure on display here Daniels has hewn from his character in Sorkin's The Newsroom, and an early scene in particular, in which he softly cajoles Joe to sell out a fellow Looper who allowed his Loop to run, is strangely tender and terrifying.

It's not until when Old-Joe, played by Bruce Willis, turns up to warn his impetuous younger incarnation of personal dangers and salvations that lie ahead, as well of as the emergence of a near-mystic Keyser Söze figure named The Rainmaker -  that has taken over organised crime in 2074 and is forcing all Loopers to close their Loops - that the film shifts gear. Willis is one of a handful of actors who is becoming eminently watchable in their eventidal years. His portrayal of the older Joe has a visible weight of regret and weariness behind the eyes, but the heightened senses that made him so good at what he did are still there too; in his scenes confronting Gordon-Levitt, it's fifty-fifty whether he's going to nod off for a snooze or disarm his opponent in one fluid feline movement. 

The film's second half thus becomes something of a chase movie, in which Old-Joe seeks to kill The Rainmaker as a child, whilst Young-Joe scrabbles to put the pieces together to make some kind of sense of his own fate as well as the situation unfolding around him. If Johnson's film has an ace up its sleeve, it's to disguise and repackage the derivative into something fresh and arresting. We are aware of familiar tropes even if we choose to go along for the ride. Ignoring these kinds of distractions is something I have previously discussed, and here serves as a testament to the ingenuity of the movie. A strong familial message rears its head with the emergence of Cid, the future Rainmaker, and her mother Sara (Emily Blunt) who believes her son's wayward telekinesis can be anchored and controlled if he's allowed to live, and this ties in neatly with Looper's central conceit of fatalism versus free will.

That Looper ultimately falls short of the balls-to-the-wall, indie-weird sci-fi it might have promised is not to detract one iota from its magnificent pacing and ideology. At the very least, it's comparable with the genius and wonder of sci-fi gone before and embraces rather than undoes its inspirational parentage.

Compliance, dir/wr. Craig Zobel, st. Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy

Compliance is a rather grim dramatisation of a real-life event that took place at a McDonalds restaurant in Mount Washington, Kentucky, in 2004, where father of five David Stewart, posing as a policeman, called the establishment's manger and managed to convince her to detain, question and later strip-search a young female employee. It's no secret that Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram's obedience and authority experiments have been borne out, often in increasingly horrifying ways,  in various real-world events across the globe, and equally, given the foreknowledge of such a film's premise, we're primed for the degradation that ultimately takes place. What is fascinating about Zobel's stagey chamber piece is the way in which 'Officer Daniels' (Healy) manages to persuade and enable via a slew of crudely implemented psychological suggestions and prompts. Granted access to both sides of his phone calls allows us to witness, alarmingly, the work of an amateur scammer (albeit one who logs conversation details and uses pre-pay phonecards) rather than some kind of criminal mastermind. Daniels' requests grow ever bizarre and un-law-enforcery, and luckily for us and the integrity of the film (as well as the victim) another employer begins to grow suspicious just as we're about to stop buying into the ruse. In retrospect it all seems a little incredulous that the scam would have even a quarter of the run-time depicted in the film, and one cannot help but wonder, with the greatest of respect, if the story might have had the same outcomes had it happened in the UK, but I guess that's the point. How often have we been told by staff, officials, uniformed officers, to move back, take another route, wait over there - all of which we do pretty much with little or no debate. In context, the perpetrator's ingenuity is revealed to be simply a manipulation of our weaknesses, and that's a pretty scary thought.