SPECTRE**** Double O Heaven


Spectre-James-Bond-24

SPECTACULAR. BOND MOVIES have always delivered on the exotic, as does this one; where “Spectre” dramatically ups the ante is the level of sheer spectacle director Sam Mendes delivers. The movie begins in Mexico City during one of its Day of the Dead celebrations. Mendes’ camera follows a masked Bond through a thronging carnival of stunningly costumed revelers. The camera snakes past voodoo-esque drummers and vast skull-shaped floats. After Bond’s almost balletic leaps across rooftops, the opening sequence culminates with a woozy helicopter ride that spins and somersaults over tens of thousands of innocent masqueraders below, packed into the city’s ancient centre in one of the many bone crushing close encounter fights of the movie.

It’s a wonderful rush and a great beginning.
images-2

And from that moment on, this more introspective of Bond’s (we’re introduced to more of his personal life) never really lets up.

The Day of the Dead was no empty spectacle. Death is at the heart of the action. Indeed the first words on the screen refer to the idea that “the dead are alive”. The story has 007 following a lead initiated by two dead people: a recorded message from Judy Dench’s M and the dying words of his past nemesis, a disheveled reclusive Mr. White (he was the ultimate baddie in “Casino Royale” and “Quantum of Solace”). Bond, a man of the shadows as he is described, is driven by the shadows of his past. This is no longer the brightly lit world of “Skyfall”; we’re now in a darker place.

Indeed, much of the action takes place at night… in the shadows. Even the look of the film is grimmer (Mendes changed his cinematographer from Roger Deakins to Hoyte van Hoytema, possibly to capture the look he gave to “Tinker, Taylor, Soldier Spy”)

The plot also nicely links the multiple (recent) villains – Mr. White and Le Chiffre  from “Casino Royale” and Silva from “Skyfall” -to the hydra-headed Spectre, magisterially presided over by the oozingly evil Ernst Stavro -“I am the author of all your pain Mr. Bond”- Blofeld (a nasty Christoph Waltz reprising the menace he delivered in “Inglorious Basterds”).

It also introduces us to a proper henchman: Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista – a full time wrestler come action star last seen in “Guardians of the Galaxy”).

images-1

We’re accustomed to the Bond villain, but henchmen are thin on the ground: there was Grant (Robert Shaw) from “From Russia with Love”, Jaws (Richard Kiel) from “Moonraker” and of course Oddjob (Harold Sakata) of “Goldfinger”. To this noble lineage comes Hinx, a sneering brute of a man, who, in a wonderfully choreographed fight with Bond, pretty much destroys an entire train (and thereby upping the ante on 007’s last great train fight in “From Russia With Love”). It’s a brilliant fight. Indeed, what’s with Bond and trains? I’d suggest he stay well away from them.

But it’s on a train that he begins his long (and generally unconvincing) courtship with Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux of “Blue is the Warmest Colour” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel”), who happens to be the daughter of Mr. White (Much has been made of the fact that Madeleine Swann, when compared with the likes of Pussy Galore, Onatop etc is a pretty ordinary name for a Bond girl. Less theatrical maybe, but no less referential: remember it was in Proust’s “Swann’s Way” that he discovered the medeleine that sets his enormous work on memory in play)

images
What makes “Spectre” especially fascinating is that underneath the mayhem and the car chases and the gadgets (all the Bond formula is here beautifully shaken not stirred, even what looks like Goldfinger’s Rolls), there’s an underlying seriousness: the movie explores the spectre of the Edward Snowden world where government surveillance is shifty and unchecked. We’re introduced to a Mr. Denbigh (Andrew Scott…Moriarty of the new “Sherlock Holmes” series), a cocky civil servant in charge of a new snooping agency, the Centre of National Security (Bond insists on calling him “C”). Denbigh is forcing through a world body of security agencies, all sharing secrets in the name of enhanced security. He has also cancelled the double O program (something that was looming since “Skyfall”), having repositioned it as inefficient when compared with the easier omni-surveillance of the state listening in to our conversations and reading our private emails.

But he is no bureaucratic naïf. And, as even M (Ralph Fiennes), Q (Ben Wishaw) and Miss Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) eventually find themselves on the wrong side of the new status quo, there are darker forces massing in the shadows.

So, is it better than the high bar of “Skyfall”?

Yes, because Mendes and Daniel Craig (who is credited as a co-producer) weave in this more interesting and somber theme of freedom v surveillance. And yes, because of the heightened spectacle and some moments of genuine hair bristling tension.

But no, because, despite these pluses some of the set piece action scenes…in particular the climatic showdown with Blofeld, isn’t as gargantuan, despite Thomas Newman’s tremendous score (when compared with the climax of “Skyfall”). Bond’s relationships with his two leading ladies also feel artificial and fake: the stunning Monica Bellucci, who plays the widow of a recently executed gangster has a too brief walk-on part and a seduction that is casual even by Bond’s standards.

images-3

Léa Seydoux lacks the spunky toughness of Eva Green; she feels lightweight and little more than irrelevant eye candy. And even Christopher Waltz’ Blofeld is no match for the seedy, deranged, Hannibal Lecter- like evil of Javier Badim’s Silva. The arc of the story is certainly better and more intriguing than “Skyfall”, but the writing’s not as clever (even though M’s given a zinger of a line that had the entire cinema laughing).

But who’s really complaining?

images

Daniel Craig is a magnificent Bond: weathered, athletic, ruthless and sexy. The entire thing is lushly enjoyable, especially at a second viewing (which I heartlly recommend)…cinematic comfort food at its best

But it is of course all just fantasy; and as Ralph Fiennes said recently in an interview’ “best not to be taken too seriously”

So, is “Spectre” just another disposable action flick?

Mendez and Craig had a lot more to live up to than ‘topping Skyfall’. For Bond is more than a successful movie franchise (now in its fifty second year). The Bond figure is part of the mythos of Western culture. He has become through the arc of his adventures from the subterranean Hades of Dr. No, forever defying the dark side of the psyche, to the jungles of Africa, the modern Odysseus, the man of “twists and turns”

“Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds, / many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,/ fighting to save his life…” (from the Robert Fagles translation of “The Odyssey”). Bond’s journeys have gripped our collective unconscious like none other in Hollywood myth making. Always the journey is one that leads him away from the order of M, the technology of Q, the fidelity of Moneypenny into a chaos, a heart of darkness, that he must defeat.

And, like every mythic hero, in the annihilation of chaos, Bond remains the focal center of our reassurance. In a world collapsing in on itself through insider malfeasance and outsider threat, Bond is the one dragon slayer in whom we can forever be sure. But where Bond and not say Superman, is the mythic hero, lies in his fallibility, his imperfections, his ability to ‘die’ (as Bond does in “Casino Royale” and, more so, in “Skyfall” and “Spectre”) and be reborn transformed into a stronger life force. Christopher Nolan’s Batman recognized this, and the ultimate triumph of Craig’s Bond is that he manages to invest his death-transcending hero with the wounds and character that give the impression of flesh and blood mortality.

What the mythology Bond offers is that, even in these troubled times, here at least is one hero, armed with the moral certitude we need to rescue us all… from the abstract evil of a Spectre to the more prosaic evil within us all.

SPECTRE. With Daniel Craig; Christoph Waltz; Ralph Fiennes; Mobical Belucci; Lea Sedoux; Naomi Harris. Dir: Sam Mendes. Writers: John Logan; Neil Purvis; Tobert Wade; Jez Butterworth. Cinematographer: Hoyte Van Hoytema. Production Designer: Dennis Gassner. Composer: Thomas Newman

LOBSTER** Better as thermidore


the-lobster-620x424

LOBSTER

Dir: Yorgos Lanthimos                                                                                                                                                                         With: Colin Farrel, John C Reilley, Lea Seydoux, Rachel Weisz, Ben Wishaw, Olivia Colman                               Cinematographer: Thimios Bakatakis

A STRANGE TIME loop seemed to have enveloped the cinema where I recently saw “Lobster”, the new (and celebrated) movie from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos (“Dogtooth”). Though the movie is officially only just under two hours, I could swear it took just under two days to view. Maybe it was the slow robotic deliberateness of all the conversations; or maybe its deep thoughts were so ponderously heavy that they weighted down even time; or maybe the meandering pointlessness to it all cast a stilling spell of futility upon the passage of time itself…I will never know.

But buyer beware. If you go to see this movie on a Saturday, an entire weekend will have passed before you emerge, bleary eyed, confused and gasping for the resuscitation of banal conversations.

It’s set in some distant future or more likely, a parallel universe where the State has intruded even to the point of controlling and ordering the timing of romance. In this universe, the love-lorn must repair to a bleak lakeside hotel where they’re given forty-five days to find true love again; and if they fail, they’re turned into the animal of their choice. Our protagonist David (a fattened, moustachioed Colin Farrell) who hangs around with his brother, now a dog, chooses a lobster (They live long, forever retain their sex drive and have blue blood. Sort of the Henry VIII of animals). Over the hill, somewhere in the distance, live another group – their opposites – who are dedicated to abstinence. Their punishment for finding a mate is to have their lips sliced (a nasty idea which, mercifully, we were not shown).

Of course, mate-desperate Dave stumbles upon an unnamed inhabitant of the abstainers (Rachel Weisz) for what blossoms into illicit sex and love.

imgres

Love will out.

Or opposites attract. Or something equally profound.

It’s Romeo and Juliette without the Capulets and Montagues…

And without charm, wit, dramatic tension, engaging characters, good dialogue, sex appeal or any reference back to even flashes of life as we know it.

And this despite a tremendous cast, working very hard to emote on cue

But, this bizarre movie does have its unique ability to warp the space-time equilibrium. There’s something to be said for that I guess.

SUFFRAGETTE*** Earnest and Well Intentioned


imgres

ABI MORGAN, WHO wrote the screenplay of this earnest, well-intentioned movie, also recently wrote two other earnest, well-intentioned movies: “Maggie” and “The Invisible Woman”.

Like her most recent creation, “Suffragette”, she has to be lauded and encouraged along with director Sarah Gavron (“Brick Lane”), production designer Alice Normington (“Brideshead Revisited”), executive producer Nicky Bower (“Selma”) and the six other female co- producers, set decorator Barbara Herman- Skelding (“The Riot Club”) and all the other women involved in this extraordinary gathering of female talent… in what is a notoriously male industry.

Morgan’s story focuses in on the private life of a hardworking laundry worker, Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan). Maud is a wife (to Sonny, performed by Ben Wishaw), a mother and, as expected of her, the caring center of her little happy, if impoverished, family. She is also, legally, a piece of property, and judged by the status quo (men) as being both emotionally and intellectually incapable of earning the right to vote.

images

Like most other women at the time, she was aware, if indifferent, to the spreading suffragette movement (when asked why she would want the vote, she struggles to answer…finally admitting that she really doesn’t know). But, caught at the wrong place at the wrong time, she witnesses a scene of thuggish police brutality against a group of women attending a peace rally to hear the movement’s leader, Emmeline Pankhurst (a nominally present Meryl Streep…basically lending her imprimatur to the proceedings). Whether she wants to or not, she has become  ‘involved’.

imgres-1

The movie traces the spread of the movement as it veers from (generally ignored) peaceful protest to increasingly violent urban terrorism through the life of Maud. Her own life morphs from that of abused worker/mother/wife to one of insurrectionist/jailbird/freedom fighter. In the cause of ‘the cause’ she loses her respectability and her family, and gains instead her self-respect and the beginnings of equality for women.

As you’d expect, Carey Mulligan’s performance is nuanced and powerful (as are the performances of all the key actors including a nice turn by Helena Bonham Carter, the great great grand-daughter to Herbert Asquith, the British PM who denied women the vote and an nice understated performance by Brendan Gleeson)

Director Gavron’s movie is engaging and efficient: every scene drives the plot forward; there’s not a wasted moment in the movie. Indeed, it’s a great movie to show to schoolchildren, as a much needed reminder that the vote – so often ignored and taken for granted – was a hard earned right…the result of enormous personal sacrifices and loss.

The problem with it all is that it’s all a bit simplistic.

The idea that drives the action is Pankhurst’s rallying cry to her supporters, “Deeds matter more than words” (though only through words – the news coverage of Emily Davison’s suicide at the Epsom derby- did the movement succeed).

But at a time when this idea applies equally to Isis or Hezbollah or any nutter with a bomb in search of martyrdom, you wonder where the philosophical divide lies that infuses action with its moral dimension; or is morality a sham construct of an entrenched status quo, which at times must be cast aside? We never really get to ‘know’ Emily Wilding Davison (Natalie Press) as we briefly follow her through the heaving crowds at the derby. But just what turns within the human heart to drive you to suicide (whether by horse or by bomb)? At what point does the shift between the selfish need (“I need a better life”) and the selfless action (“what matters for me matters for all”) become the spark that sets a revolution in play?

Don’t look to “Suffragette” to try to resolve these deeper issues.

I am not trying to rewrite Ms Morgan’s enjoyable, well-intentioned movie. But without any deeper probing, “Deeds matter more than words” is just a trite and shallow cliché. It really should be the beginning of a conversation that a richer movie could have delivered. Instead we’re left with “Suffragette”: enjoyable, well intentioned and, in Hollywood’s macho world, an important step forward.

But in the end, superficial and underwhelming.

SICARIO**** It’s a hit, man


images

SICARIO WE ARE told, in this heart-stoppingly gripping movie of the same name, was the term given to the insurgents, the freedom fighters, during the Roman Empire. It’s also Mexican slang for hit-man. Alejandro (Benecio del Toro) and his boss, Matt (Josh Brolin) the titular sicarios of the movie, live in this grey world where the noble mission of halting the drug trade veers into a murky world of extra-legal collusions, assassinations and revenge.

We follow the story from the eyes of a courageous, idealistic, but naive Kate (Emily Blunt) who, angered by the bizarre and fatal turn of events on a mission she’s recently led, allows herself to volunteer for a more dangerous mission- to find a people smuggling pipeline and bring to justice the leaders.

At least that’s how she sees it.

As she slowly realizes however, this isn’t about Mexicans crossing the border, this isn’t even about justice. This is a darker mission about bringing down one of the many drug lords. Her new boss and ‘mentor’, the laconic, amoral Matt (a tough, weather-beaten Brolin) jokes that the aim of the mission is to “dramatically overreact”. And to accomplish this, Matt is armed with Alejandro, an emotionally wounded man turned attack dog, whose personal mission is one of single-minded vengeance. His is a ruthless take no prisoners approach that means nothing and no-one, not even Kate, will stand in his way.

Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners”) leads us through the story from Kate’s perspective. She, like us, slowly piece together what the real mission is, without ever really understanding who her colleagues (backed up by a mini battalion of Afghanistan trained mercenaries, who seem to be paid by whatever drugs they seize) are. They may be DEA or CIA. Who knows? At one point she’s told, “nothing will make sense to your American ears, and you will doubt everything that we do, but in the end you will understand”. What she does come to realize is that she’s joined a team that has no compunction about crossing the border and waging war in Mexico, where the demarcation between the police and their prey, between the good guys and the bad is, like the border, ever shifting.

The philosophical construct Villeneuve offers is the existential conundrum: play by the rules and the war on drugs will never be won. Break the rules – which means murder, torture or at best collusion – and you’ll stand a better chance of success… at the price of your moral conscience.

“Sicario” has the nerve biting, muscular tension of the best of Michael Mann. The score of composer Jóhan Jóhannsson (“Foxcatcher”, “Prisoners”) – all low notes and frenzied electronics – and the cinematography of Roger Deakin (“Skyfall”, “Ture Grit”) – flat, at times over lit, at times dark and brooding (he’s considered one of the three best cinematographers around) lend the movie a sense of unrelenting dread. You get a sense that even the land and the elements are threats.
Brolin and Blunt (who was the best thing about “Edge of Tomorrow”) are a solid, compelling duo.

imgres

But the stand out performance is that of Benecio del Toro’s. His Alejandro is no one-dimensional killer. He’s clearly a wounded man with a warmth and paternal protectiveness which his job and his past must mothball. These are not the times for gentleness and caring. As he tells Kate, “you are not a wolf. And this is a land of wolves”. He has become, despite himself, a wolf. Del Toro’s triumph is that he allows us to see the dark symbiosis of the sicario…the nobility and fearlessness of the freedom fighter and the savagery of the hit-man.

“Sicario” is a slickly directed action movie placed in service of a serious look at quagmire of the drug trade. In the end, as the cynical Matt (Brolin) observes, until the 20% of the American public who want the drugs, curtail their needs, the war will never be won.

MACBETH (2015)***** Majestic


imgres

DIRECTOR JUSTIN KURZEL’S “Macbeth” is absolutely riveting. He’s taken Shakespeare’s tale of tyranny, ambition and deceit, stripped it of huge chunks of text and a few characters (so that a three hour play is intelligently edited down to under two hours) and the result is an enormously watchable, stunningly powerful drama. No doubt influenced by Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood”, Kurzel’s “Macbeth” plays out through a series of stark, almost surreal images where the ‘blasted heath’ – dark, cold, inhospitable (“darkness does the face of earth entomb”) – becomes the visual equivalent of a kingdom forged in regicide and drowning in blood and madness.

Michael Fassbender is a towering, ruthless action-man Macbeth. Just as you’d expect from someone who’d “unseam” his enemy “from the nave to th’ chaps, /And fix his head upon…battlements”. But for all his brutish virility (he makes love to his wife as they plot the death of Duncan), he lacks an heir (in a nice touch, Kurzel begins the story with Macbeth and wife at the funeral of their child) and yields to his wife’s taunts to either be a real man or “live a coward in thine own esteem”.
It is a route to manliness by way of insanity

Fassbender’s Macbeth is perfectly matched by Marion Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth. Her cunning steely determination is nicely counterpointed by her sexiness, which she uses to good effect on Macbeth. Cotillard manages to convey at all times the balance between the ‘mere’ wife of the Thane of Cawdor and someone who is filled “from the crown to the toe, top- full/ Of direst cruelty”

images

They are a perfect partnership; hot for each other (the chemistry between Fassbender and Cotillard is obvious) and engaged not so much in a marriage as a collusion. It becomes all the more shocking as we see her unflinching strength yield to insanity. In the end, her prayer to “make thick my blood” cannot stand up to the guilt of what she has unleashed into the world. We meet her as she nears her end alone in a convent this time haunted by blood… and watched over by a dead child. “Who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?” she asks to no one in particular.

They’re the last words we’ll hear her speak

Almost all of Shakespeare’s plays that have been turned into movies retain their theatrical form… simply transported to better locations. So, they all feel slightly stilted; usually the shift from stage to screen doesn’t work. But this “Macbeth” feels like a movie… as though Shakespeare had written it for the screen.

And it’s a movie about war. This is a world at war. The stylized battle scenes are loud, vicious and gory. When the armies clash, Kurtzel places us in the middle of what it must have been like to have ten thousand screaming war painted men rushing at you with swords and axes at the ready. The war is so intense, the battles so exhaustingly murderous, you wonder how anyone lived through them. And this is Kuttzel’s point. His interpretation of the play is a very modernist one: the Macbeth we meet…imagining the ghost of Banquo, spooked by witches, and increasingly indifferent to his degenerating wife is a warrior suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome. It’s a condition of war that (we can hypothesize) the ever-observant poet must have been well aware of.

The movie ends as it begins – with a pitched battle. And between these two frenzied bouts of violence and carnage, a sense of darkness and dread and loneliness permeate the entire tale. There is no question that this is a world that’s out of joint.

Historians have suggested that this was Shakespeare zoning in on the zeitgeist of the day. For when wrote it, his universe must indeed have felt out of joint. Macbeth was written in 1606, just a year after the Ascension to the throne of James I, or James VI of Scotland (a man who believed in witches). It was the same year that Guido Fawkes, and English Catholic mercenary tried to assassinate him. The shift from an English Elizabethan England to a Scottish Jacobean reign must have been enormously unsettling… and has been clearly mirrored through Shakespeare’s unerring lens both in this play and the one that preceded it, “King Lear”

images-1

Not unlike the Kurosawa version, Kurzel’s visual imagination (well assisted by production designer Fiona Crowmby, and cinematographer Adam Arkapaw) allows you to remember – and see – the play through a series of stunning vignettes, that speak almost as loud as Shakespeare’s language: As Macbeth hacks and chops at Macduff (Sean Harris) in the final battle, the witches hover silently in the fog…witnesses to his defeat; in death he kneels over as Malcolm’s triumphant army marches past as if he were not even there. He’s already become a footnote. We follow Lady Macduff as she and her children are chased through a forest, she screaming “Murder, murder”…it’s like hunters after wild game; the murder of Duncan is no simple killing – we see Macbeth as the butcher – stabbing and stabbing his King; and all around there is fog and the wet cold, untamed rigour of the land

THE MARTIAN** Yawn


maxresdefault

MARK WATNEY (MATT Damon) is one of a team of scientists doing pretty boring routine research work on the planet Mars (sometime in the near future) when disaster strikes. A howling Martian storm threatens the stability of their aircraft and Watney is slammed by a piece of debris and swept away into the darkness. Believing that he’s dead and fearing for their own safety, the ship’s captain (Jessica Chastain) makes the call…and leaves him behind.

Of course he’s not dead; he simply has a piece of antennae sticking out of his stomach. Watney drags himself back to base camp, repairs himself and begins the yawningly long process of fighting to survive for the next few years until help can reach him. He’s a very clever botanist. Call him MacGyver on Mars. He wraps the inside of his Martian habitat with plastic (who knows spacecrafts carried so much plastic with them. You learn something new every day), manages to manufacture water, uses his own carefully packaged feces and Martian dirt to grow potatoes, rigs up a contraption to get a message back to earth and fights off loneliness and despair by complaining about the disco song selection left behind by the captain.

Meanwhile, back on earth, crew captain Mitch (Sean Bean) and lead scientist Vincent (Chiwetel Ejiofor) must battle the PR conscious head of NASA (Jeff Daniels) about funding a search and rescue for Watney. No matter how fast they act, they won’t get to him in under two years.

But this is no Castaway talking to a football for company (or Robert Redford for that matter, not talking at all, in that wonderful survivor movie, “All is Lost”). Redford and Tom Hanks really invited us into their minds as they desperately battled to stay alive, batted to stay sane on an empty island. But Director Ridley Scott isn’t really interested in the mind twisting, psyche damaging madness of being stranded on a distant planet with, realistically, no means of escape. He’s more interested in showing how awfully clever and gung-ho his wise-ass astronaut botanist is. He remains ever chirpy in the face of disaster.

It’s probably Matt Damon’s most one-dimensional role…proving, I guess, that there really IS no life on Mars.

But let’s not judge “The Martian” on criteria that it wasn’t meant to be judged by. This is no ponderous “Prometheus” or pretentious “Interstellar”. “The Martian” is simply a good natured, late summer adventure blockbuster. It certainly has all the elements to offer a decent surge of blockbuster adrenaline: brilliant visuals, howling gales, people floating in space tethered delicately to rotating spacecraft, an “Apollo 13” type gang of braniacs trying to fix things from earth, Jason Bourne himself showing of his pecs and a climatic denoument set in the limitless darkness of the void.

And all as dull as dishwater.

Ridley Scott…the brilliant Ridley Scott, the man who gave us “Gladiator”, “Black Hawk Down”, “Thelma and Louise”, “Blade Runner” and “Alien” seems to be settling into an ouvre where pomp and circumstance (“Exodus: Gods and Kings” was his latest production) are replacing thrilling stories with engaging characters.

For pomp and circumstance there certainly is much of: the production design (by his go-to designer, Arthur Max) is impressively credible (apparently all NASA approved) and editor Pietro Scalia (“The Amazing Spider-Man 2”) stitches together the elements to squeeze every ounce of life out of the story.

It’s just that “Thunderbirds Are Go”, that old puppet series on TV had a better script and more interesting characters than “The Martian”, where unfortunately, even actors of the caliber of Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara and Michael Peña remain cardboard cut outs mouthing spacecraft mumbo jumbo.

Ah well, at least in space, no one can hear you shout