Archive for October, 2012

Daniel Craig’s transition to the role of James Bond caused quite the stir back in 2006 with Casino Royale. While stoking debate over whether it was appropriate or not to cast a blond Bond, the film also attempted to apply some timely revisionism to the overly familiar formula of the Pierce Brosnan films, which had become reliant on increasing ridiculousness.

Casino Royale downplayed the reliance on gadget heavy action and increasingly cringe worthy quips, replacing them with a more muscular, gritty style closer to the Timothy Dalton Bond films. The results were mixed as some beloved Bond ideas were diminished (genuinely clever gadgets, larger than life villains and truly smart dialogue), making for a Bond film that wasn’t really Bond.

With Skyfall however, things have changed for Craig’s Bond. Running (to an extent) with the Bond revisionism, director Sam Mendes adds a genuine Bond fandom to proceedings. Bringing the drama to the heart of Bond’s world, Mendes’ film sees an attack on MI6 by an elusive terrorist cell, headed by the creepy Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem). As the head of MI6, Bond’s boss M (Judi Dench) finds herself in danger.

Mendes is an English director long known for his work in America, but with Skyfall he brings refreshingly British considerations to his take on Bond. Britain is the centre of the drama, despite hops to Shanghai and Turkey, and Mendes makes particularly good use of subterranean London. Even more welcome is the sprawling, expressionistic landscapes of Scotland, essentially the heartland of the Bond family.

Mendes does well to improve on elements of the Bond legacy that the earlier Craig films did less well. Gadgets are here and they are pleasingly realistic, the Bond girls are better cast (particularly Naomie Harris as Eve) and Craig’s Bond feels more valid and interesting here than he had before; Mendes looks into his scarred psyche à la Bruce Wayne. Mendes even takes the film on a particularly fun jaunt into the Connery era with the surprising appearance of an Aston Martin DB5.

Ironically though it is perhaps the back referencing that makes us realise that, in spite of its overall quality, Skyfall doesn’t have a great deal to say about the contemporary world. There is an attempt to explore how modern society is troubled by faceless peril, via internet terrorism, yet the treatment is muzzled somewhat when Bardem’s larger than life (even camp) villain Silva arrives.

But are real world issues too much to ask from a series twenty-three films long and five decades old? When Bond attempted to step into the modern world during the Brosnan era, the approach was snared by the superficiality of gadgets and gizmos. At least by looking to the past Sam Mendes has created a Bond film that feels genuinely at home with itself.

Ultimately Skyfall marks the point where James Bond could finally go out with a bang. It could be an appropriately reverent swansong to the spy who first hit the screens in 1962 with Dr. No, though inevitably the words ‘James Bond will return’ appear on the screen at the end. Perhaps it is against my better judgement, but I am glad that Bond will return again; maybe to match the quality of Skyfall one day.

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It was doomed from the start. Back in 2007, Walter Salles was announced as the director for the latest attempt at adapting On the Road, Jack Kerouac’s beatnik classic. To the untrained eye, it would seem to be a match made in heaven; Salles had previously found success with another symbolic counter-culture film, The Motorcycle Diaries, a dusty, earthy road movie starring Gael Garcia Bernal as the young Che Guevara. But look beyond the surface of these similarities, and you’ll find that Salles was perhaps not quite the shrewd pick everybody thought he was.

On the Road is a novel that’s been talked about and debated for years, and rightly so. The story follows Sal Paradise (based on Kerouac himself) and Dean Moriarty (based on Neal Cassady, Kerouac’s friend), two beatnik hipsters ploughing a furious path through the American landscape, with no aim except ecstasy and oblivion. Sal, a precocious writer in New York, meets Dean through a mutual acquaintance and is excited immediately by him; a macho, unpredictable, hedonistic whirlwind of a man, and a homoerotic love affair between the two ensues. They embark on a series of raw adventures across motorways and dead end towns, while Dean’s many conquests are left at home to stew. One of Dean’s lovers, Mary Lou (played by Kristen Stewart), a 16 year old, plays quite a prominent part; it is she who seems to stoke the fires of Dean the most, and proves his most volatile union in the film.

Garrett Hedlund showed early promise in the excellent Friday Night Lights and delivers somewhat with a fiery, complex portrayal of Dean. You can sense the burning frustration and self loathing amidst the hedonism, but when you consider the towering Dean of the novel, Hedlund doesn’t quite match up. To play Dean you need an extraordinary actor; it is no surprise that Kerouac wanted Brando as his first choice. The other players fare much worse. Sam Riley, playing Sal, seems to be making a habit of desecrating sacred cultural works (the pointless Brighton Rock remake and the dour Control). Kristen Stewart should play Marylou as a firecracker; instead she comes off as a dampened sparkler.

The main problem with Salles’ adaptation of On the Road lies with its faithfulness to the overall plot rather than the feel of the novel. No one wants to watch an empty film about a couple of brattish young hipsters going on pointless road trips, which is ultimately what Salles has given us here. The novel’s beauty lied in the urgency and poetry of the prose, the hypnotic rhythm, the vivid, wildfire characters. Salles has made a handsome, worthy, but ultimately dull adaptation of a work which should fly off the screen. This is most evident in the little poetic asides every character gives. In the novel, they came across as genuinely inspired and touching. Here, with a bevy of miscast starlets, they merely come across as trite and contrived.

The irritating aspect of this adaptation is how ill-suited Salles is as a director. Though The Motorcycle Diaries had its good points, there was no indication that Salles could replicate the wild, anarchic tone of Kerouac’s novel. If I were to offer up any American director to take on the challenge, it would have been John Cassavetes. At least then there would have been an injection of unpredictability and volatile characters. As it stands we have a failed adaptation that goes to show what a singular, elusive work Kerouac scribbled down 60 odd years ago.

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Harris Savides, one of Hollywood’s most revered cinematographers, died yesterday at the age of 55 after suffering from brain cancer. Savides was responsible for lighting and lensing several game changing films, including David Fincher’s accomplished digital noir Zodiac and Gus Van Sant’s ‘death trilogy’ comprised of Gerry, Elephant and Last Days. He brought a distinct and sensitive photographic style to work with auteur directors; Zodiac was one of the first truly convincing examples of digital photography in a Hollywood film. Working with Van Sant on Elephant and Last Days he also explored the atmospheric possibilities of the 4:3 aspect ratio, an old fashioned format for the time. Savides is also remembered for his work with James Gray on The Yards (renowned for its expert use of underexposure), Noah Baumbach on Margot at the Wedding (with its vérité naturalism), Ridley Scott on American Gangster (in which he evoked the smokey tones of 1968 New York) and Woody Allen on Whatever Works (where he captured Larry David’s argumentative, fourth-wall-breaking protagonist). Savides was a diverse and perceptive DOP, whose distinct visual stamp will certainly be missed.

LAST DAYS (2005)

ZODIAC (2007)

AMERICAN GANGSTER (2007)

WHATEVER WORKS (2009)

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Sinister looked to be one of the worst horror outings of the year. Sporting the most unimaginative of generic titles and a poster resembling used toilet roll, the film seemed something of a grim proposition. Deceptive this was however, as it turns out to be a solid, even surprising outing of Stephen King-esque terror.

Ethan Hawke stars as Ellison Oswalt, a true crime writer who moves his wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) and two children to an old house in order to work on a book about a family who were murdered in a group hanging. Ellison fails to disclose to Tracy that the house they are living in is in fact the house of the victims. During their residency they incur disturbances of a namesake nature, as Ellison starts reeling through 8mm film of the murders.

Clichéd the premise may be but director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) keeps things fresh with a lean and sadistic script, an efficient approach to shooting (utilising available light to foreboding effect) and a focus on quality performances. The film possesses a thoroughly credible turn by Ethan Hawke and enough dark humor to betray Derrickson’s genre credentials.

While there are gimmicks on show (J-horror style freaky children, lashings of makeup and bangs and crashes), the direction is predominantly discerning in technique. Derrickson builds substantial tension with considered camera movement, letting negative space in the frame take on an unsettling quality. Much like in James Watkins’ The Woman In Black, we question what lurks near the characters and therein lies authentic suspense.

Sinister peaks when it toys with the horrifying 8mm footage that Ellison is using for research. The experience of watching the footage puts us in Ellison’s shoes and troubles us with the distinction between film and life. Though Hideo Nakata definitively explored this disquieting territory with Ringu, Sinister is still sufficiently enlivened by Derrickson’s sincere desire to scare.

Admirably the film successfully reworks modern and vintage staples of the horror genre without feeling turgid or tired. When the bewildering impact of the 8mm footage begins to haunt Ellison’s psyche he destroys the projector, yet it ominously returns intact. Other familiar components, like black dogs, ghostly faces and Shining-esque alcoholic writers don’t even provoke a sigh.

The day after watching Sinister I found an old 8mm film projector on sale outside an antiques shop; next to it was a black dog. In spite of my cynicism I will admit to feeling genuinely spooked. True to its name, Sinister had done its job.

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With his third feature Looper director Rian Johnson transitions from indie darling to high-concept-sci-fi-helmer. The film is an ambitious affair with Joseph Gordon Levitt playing Bruce Willis and Bruce Willis playing, well Bruce Willis. The film with its neo-noir styling reminds us of classics from days gone by (think The Terminator, Blade Runner and 70s Spielberg), but it fails to become the rollercoaster ride to do the genre justice.

Joseph Gordon Levitt plays Joe. He works as a Looper, which is the name for a futuristic kind of hitman. Existing in 2044, thirty years before the invention of time travel Joe is employed by gangs to assassinate people who have been transported back in time, before disposing of their bodies (bodies which are not known to have existed in the first place). Bruce Willis is also Joe, existing in 2074, during the era of time travel. The trouble comes when Willis’ Joe returns to be killed by his former self and promptly escapes.

The concept sounds convoluted, but Johnson handles it efficiently with an entertaining setup and a succinct voiceover from Gordon-Levitt. The most startling element is Levitt’s bizarre uncanny resemblance to Willis, achieved seemingly with the aid of prosthetics, as well as Gordon-Levitt’s ability to mimic Hollywood action heroes. Johnson also casts Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood) as a fellow Looper, who pulls out a familiar, yet entertaining hysterical performance.

Looper becomes somewhat less entertaining in the second act. While searching for Willis, Gordon-Levitt stumbles upon a farm home to Sara (Emily Blunt) and her son Daniel (Kamden Beauchamp). In narrative terms these scenes are among the most important in the film, yet there is a feeling of stagnation as Gordon-Levitt’s hunt for Willis decelerates. The dynamic between Gordon-Levitt and Blunt also fails to spark with any great authenticity and their relationship develops in an unconvincing manner.

Simultaneously the relationship between Willis’ Joe and his main love interest emerges simply to motivate the plot, rather than offer any emotional engagement. There is a sense that when the stakes should be at their highest, Looper is actually at its least engaging. Only at its end does Johnson turn Looper around with great effect, engaging us with a tense and spectacularly original showdown.

Jean-Luc Godard famously said: “a film should have a beginning, a middle and an end but not necessarily in that order.” With Looper Rian Johnson has created a great beginning and a great end, if only there was a great middle there to close the loop.

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Why is it that many of the most gifted film makers also happen to be the ones who rarely make films? I’m thinking of Terrence Malick, the Salinger of American movies, or the enfant terrible of indie cinema Harmony Korine. We can add Leos Carax to this list. These directors share something in common; a belief in the spontaneity of the film, a desire to show something out of the ordinary, to capture a special moment no matter how small. Carax has not made a feature film for 13 years, since his troublesome Pola X. How does he fare coming back from the wilderness?

Holy Motors is perhaps Carax’s strangest film yet. While his earlier films like Les Amants Du Ponts Neuf and Mauvais Sang dabbled in off kilter theatrics and shards of surrealism, Holy Motors goes full throttle in its search for the great unknown. The plot follows Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant), a Parisian, as he is chauffeured around town in a gleaming white limousine by Celine (Edith Scob), his elderly female driver. What goes on from here is a matter for the viewer’s own interpretation. Oscar has a set of assignments he has to complete, each involving a new character to embody; so he might be an old beggar lady wandering the streets, or a shellsuited thug. There is a touch of Harmony Korine’s last two films in this process; the mischievous hijacking of another’s identity, and the liberating feeling of being someone else.

There seems to be little purpose to any of the assignments. To the untrained eye, what Oscar is trying to achieve will forever be a mystery. It almost seems like performance for the sake of performance. If we were to follow the idea that Holy Motors is a love letter to cinema, then it makes sense as a piece of work. The world doesn’t need cinema, like Oscar doesn’t need to perform, so why not do it for the love of it? There is a telling piece of dialogue where Oscar laments the loss of cameras to watch him in his job, saying there are too small now; could Carax be lamenting the loss of the classic cinema as he knows it? The frequent interludes of silent cinema clips, the involvement of the starlet Eva Mendes and the references to George Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (Edith Scob wearing that mask) all points to a work that is in love with the silver screen.

Denis Lavant again proves that he is one of the most distinctive and mesmerising actors in film today. The De Niro to Carax’s Scorsese, his ageless physicality is on show not just in his ninja hijinks but in the way he swaggers along the floor as a leprechaun like figure, or emotes to his daughter. Without Lavant you feel this film would not exist, and the same goes for Carax’s whole career. They are brothers in lunacy. Which leads me on to the reason Holy Motors doesn’t grip me like some of his earlier films; Juliette Binoche. The relationship between Lavant and Binoche was both touching and electric, providing the warm, beating heart of his earlier films. With Denis Lavant on his own, the film is slightly colder for it, more melancholy and isolated. While the highlights are frequent and bizarre, there is something missing to tie it all together.

Despite this, Holy Motors is by far the most original and outrageous film you will see this year, or any other year for that matter. Leos Carax proves that he has more relevant than ever, a breath of fresh air compared to the stale, formulaic films of both the mainstream and the arthouse.

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