Monday, 19 November 2012
"What were you expecting, an exploding pen? We don't go in for that sort of thing any more." So says MI6's new quartermaster, Q (franchise new recruit, Ben Whishaw) upon meeting 007 (Daniel Craig).
And although you're well aware that the Bond franchise -- now in its 50th year -- dispensed with the gadgetry (and a lot of the fun) when they rebooted with Craig and Casino Royale in 2006, you kind of wish they hadn't the longer Skyfall, the 23rd and latest Bond film, runs. For at 143 minutes Skyfall, helmed by Oscar winner Sam Mendes (American Beauty), could do with a lot more light to go with its shadow play: it's too long a film for not nearly enough reward.
The (admittedly spectacular) action sequences occur far too infrequently between long stretches of not very much at all, and as impressive as Istanbul, Shanghai and Macau look (lensed by Roger Deakins, Skyfall is easily the handsomest Bond film yet mounted), we mostly find ourselves in London, cloistered beneath the city and a makeshift MI6 Headquarters.
For British intelligence has come under fire: from bureaucrats who question the clandestine old ways, and the leadership of M (Judi Dench); and from someone from M's past whose identity isn't revealed until about the one hour mark. Silva, a former British operative abandoned by M during the British handover of Hong Kong to China in the late 1990s, is a figuratively and literally tortured soul, who conducts his evil operations online and wants revenge on 'Mother'.
Bond films are no stranger to camp villains but Silva (played by a blonde Javier Bardem) is possibly the campest of them all. His first scene, entering his lair where a handcuffed Bond awaits, is a mixture or menace and mirth as Silva simultaneously goads and flirts with 007; rubbing his prisoner's thighs and offering him new experiences. "What makes you think it's my first time?" Bond responds, in one of the rare moments the film - and Craig - loosens up.
But the laughs are few as there's much more soul searching to be done, which includes a third act where Bond and M decamp to Scotland and we uncover the roots of our favourite British agent. Yet this segment of Skyfall felt to me like another film entirely, by way of Christopher Nolan's Batman, and even latter Harry Potter.
There are touchstones with Bonds passed throughout Skyfall -- the car, the Bassey-like theme song by Adele which is a stand-out -- and a farewell to others, too. Skyfall is both the end of a trilogy and a reboot-of-sorts. There's certainly no mention of the secret organisation behind the nefarious goings on in Quantum of Solace as if - surprise, surprise - the producers would rather we forget about that film completely.
They needn't have worried. As you read this, Skyfall has already passed $600 million at the international box office and Daniel Craig (along with screenwriter, John Logan) has signed on for two more missions. Perhaps then we will get a James Bond we all love: tough and cynical for the brave new world that is the 21st century but one not immune to letting the character's humour shine through.
We may not need gadgets but we do need Bond girls (Naomie Harris and Berenice Marlohe performing the honours here), colourful villains and a world in danger from their nefarious schemes. Action and humour, and as much light as shade, leaving us shaken and stirred but above all entertained.
Thursday, 15 November 2012
We film reviewers see so many films, and so few of them ever truly surprise us. Endings, particularly in Hollywood films, are rarely in doubt. Ken Loach doesn't make Hollywood films, and with the Brit director's latest film, The Angels' Share, a kitchen sink drama cum heist comedy, that not knowing was part of the thrill: the third act of The Angels' Share was almost as nerve-racking for me as the third act of Argo.
It's also been a while since I've seen a film where I've been so heavily invested in the outcome of the hero's plight. Here that hero is Robbie (non-professional actor, Paul Brannigan). In his early 20's and built like a jockey, we meet Robbie as he's appearing before a magistrate (and not for the first time) on assault charges.
Managing to avoid jail time, Robbie is sentenced to perform community service which brings him into contact with Harry (John Henshaw), a man who believes in a fair go and second chances. And Robbie, on the verge of becoming a first time father with his partner, Leonie (Siobhan Reilly), wants so much to start anew and prove the doubters (like his disapproving father-in-law of sorts) wrong.
Robbie is at the bottom of the rung, and circumstances won't let him climb any higher to become the man, and father, he wants to be. And The Angels' Share starts out very much like a typical Ken Loach film (written with regular collaborator, Paul Laverty) about the working and under classes -- their less than glamorous day-to-day existence, unemployment, and run-ins with both sides of the law -- and then surprises -- and delights -- by becoming another film entirely.
Harry is a connoisseur of whisky, and his affection for the drop infects Robbie, who attends various tastings with his new mentor. And it turns out Robbie quite literally has a nose for whisky. He also has an eye for a good mark, and when it is announced that a cask of whisky from a once famous brewery thought to be long lost is about to go on auction, and believed to fetch at least 1 million pounds, Robbie's interest is piqued.
Enlisting the help of his fellow community service workers, Rhino (William Ruane), Mo (Jasmin Riggins) and Albert (Gary Maitland), Robbie sets in motion a plan to liberate a few litres of the sought after brew in the hopes of selling to a willing buyer, and funding his family's new start. Of course, as in all heist films, nothing goes according to plan with both amusing and nerve-racking results.
The angels' share is a brewer's term for describing the 2 per cent or so of the casked alcohol which is lost to evaporation. It's also an adequate description for Robbie and his cohorts. They are the small percentage of people who slip through the cracks, who disappear, who aren't really missed.
But Loach, a chronicler and champion of the working class and the underdog, knows better than that. Given the chance, anyone can contribute and even make a difference. It's not about handouts so much as a hand up, which is what Harry (John Henshaw) gives Robbie, and Robbie aims to repay (if less legitimately) in kind.
The Angels' Share has been compared to The Full Monty (1997) which I think is unfair. The latter Best Picture Oscar nominee, also about underdogs making good, was an insistently feel good film, hammering your funny bone until it hurt. I wasn't a fan.
Loach, on the other hand, prefers to merely tickle you, saving the hammering for the tougher elements in the film's first half. And while those disparate halves may not make for the perfect drop, The Angels' Share is a tipple you'll find near impossible to resist.
Wednesday, 14 November 2012
The old man and the automaton sounds like an odd couple movie, and so it is. But Robot & Frank is much more than its sometimes cutesy, somewhat high concept premise would suggest. At its heart, Jake Schreier's film (written by Christopher D. Ford) is about loss: of memory, books, the past. But it's by no means a downer.
Frank (Frank Langella) is a one-time cat burglar now retired to leafy upstate New York where he lives alone in a big house. He occupies his days by venturing into the local town where, when he's not trying to find his favourite diner (long since closed) or stealing kitty cat soaps from a knick-knacks store, he's visiting the local library and flirting with head librarian, Jennifer (Susan Sarandon).
But Frank is actually suffering from Alzheimer's, and his son Hunter (James Marsden), exasperated for having to drive from the city each time Frank dismisses another carer (or shoplifts a bar of soap), decides it's time his dad was taken into hand. Robotic hands.
Robot & Frank is actually set in 'the near future', and Robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard, and sounding a lot like Kevin Spacey in creepy mode) is a carer model designed to regiment its charge's day-to-day activities, including meals, medication and hobbies; routine keeps the mind active and in order.
Naturally, things get off to a rocky start. Frank doesn't want a 'butler' but by the time his crusading daughter Madison (Liv Tyler) comes to stay, spouting anti-slavery, 'robots are people too' nonsense, Frank has become rather fond of Robot. He's also decided Robot (as much as he likes him, Frank never names him) would be the perfect accomplice for a little light larceny; the cat burglar spurred out of retirement by his new partner's ideal application for lock picking and safe cracking.
Their mark? The douchey hipster Jake (Jeremy Strong), who lives across the way from Frank and has come to town to oversee a project whereby the local library will be completely digitized.
Robot & Frank uses the near future-sci-fi elements to dress-up (but never distractingly) what is essentially a film about Alzheimer's. Without it it may have been a mere TV movie-of-the-week, or worse, the robot would have been replaced by a young female nurse with the personality and technical nous of Lisbeth Salander.
Ironically, Robot humanises both the film and Frank, certainly early on when he's little more than a grumpy old man. But Langella ultimately makes for a likeable curmudgeon, and his and Robot's relationship is sweet and charming without ever being cloying or saccharine. Thankfully, Robot & Frank isn't programmed that way.
Monday, 12 November 2012
A New Zealand black comedy which is heavily weighted in favour of the former rather than the latter, Two Little Boys will no doubt attract fans of its leading men, Bret McKenzine (one half of Flight of the Conchords) and Hamish Blake (the funny half of Oz radio duo, Hamish and Andy), and bitterly disappoint them all.
Nige (McKenzie) and Deano (Blake) have been best buds since primary school, where Deano always had the back of his smaller friend. Now grown men in Invercargill in 1993, the pair have had a falling out. Nige, a teller in the local bank, has become friends with Gav (Maaka Pohatu), a security guard, and Deano is not happy. Considering Nige's new friendship as an act of betrayal (unfaithfulness even), Deano has kicked him out of the one bedroom flat they've no doubt shared since leaving high school.
But when Nige accidentally runs down and kills a Norwegian backpacker, he has no one to turn to but Deano. And Deano seizes this opportunity to reclaim his place in the life, and heart, of Nige.
First things first, they have to get rid of the body, a task which Deano takes to with ever growing zeal. And when a weekend trip to the New Zealand countryside to do just that sees the affable - and oblivious - man mountain, Gav, tagging along, Deano decides it may just be the perfect opportunity to kill a second bird with one stone.
Robert Sarkies' film, co-written with brother Duncan, may have been intended as a black comedy on good friendship turned sour but other than some flashbacks and fantasy sequences, and the initial shock of seeing our protagonists sporting bad mullets and equally as bad denim, the laughs are few and far between.
Not that McKenzie and Blake aren't good. They are, as is Pohatu, but there's so much that falls flat or isn't properly developed (Deano's unhealthy obsession with Nige, for instance) that you wouldn't be at all surprised to see the wind, which blows hard and often across the New Zealand coastline, toss up a tumbleweed or two.
Thursday, 8 November 2012
In post-World War II America, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a shell-shocked serviceman full of anger but with little aptitude for anything but the concoction of some powerful moonshine (the secret ingredient is paint thinner), is in need of direction.
Stowing away one night on a steamboat, he finds possible salvation in Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a charismatic man and founder and leader of The Cause, a fledgling religion-of-sorts which believes in past lives and other fanciful notions.
It's no secret that Paul Thomas Anderson's sixth film, and his first since 2007's Oscar-nominated There Will Be Blood, is loosely based on the early years of Scientology. But The Master isn't really about Scientology at all. One suspects that while the beginnings of L. Ron Hubbard's religion may have been the original kernel of Anderson's story, that connection has only been maintained (by the film's publicity department?) as means of creating faux-controversy (non-troversy); to grab the interest of a lazy media that wouldn't necessarily be concerned with the latest complex work by an uncompromising auteur.
There may be more than a few parallels with Scientology and the life of Hubbard, but if you know nothing of that history, you won't spot them in The Master. What the film is mostly concerned with is the relationship between these two men: father and son, teacher and pupil, master and slave, and, more subtly, homoerotic attraction.
That may be one of the reason's Dodd's wife, Peggy (a solid though underused Amy Adams) is wary of this newcomer who has been welcomed so warmly into the fold by her husband, not to mention clandestinely into the bed of her newly-married daughter. Not quite Lady Macbeth, Peggy is The Cause's guard dog, ever-ready to defend her husband and attack any threat to his teachings. And Freddie, wild and unpredictable, and liberal with his supply of moonshine, is a recognisable threat.
But it's not about Peggy, and with all due respect to Adams, a wonderful actress, The Master is not about her. This is Phoenix and Hoffman's show, and the two are a powerhouse duo.
Phoenix is as awkward as a captive bird: hands in-turned on hips, his head cocked to the side and a grimace almost permanently on his face. He also seems to grow thinner as the film progresses (his pants wearing higher and belt drawn tighter) as if Quell's relationship with Dodd were drawing the life out of him even as he believes it to be enriching his soul.
Alternatively, Hoffman is the picture of good health. Robust and ruddy-cheeked, Dodd emanates warmth; the Sun at the centre of a self-made universe. Charismatic, commanding, and domineering when need be, Dodd possesses the necessary characteristics to be a cult leader, and Hoffman has the nous to make him neither a monster or caricature.
But two great performances a great film does not make. As much as one can admire the craft and the vision of Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master is not a film one readily embraces or even, dare I say it, loves. Unless of course you worship at the altar of PTA -- and many do. The Master, I suspect, will be one of those films which critics praise and the general public comes away from going 'huh?'.
Disciples of Paul Thomas Anderson won't need persuading, nor are they likely to be swayed in their belief of the film's brilliance. Non-believers, on the other hand, will find much that they admire about, and can take away from The Master but they won't necessarily be converted to the cause.
20th Century Fox Films
Who knew the phrase "wouldn't work in an iron lung" sometimes came with an addendum. *Penis not included. Certainly for Mark O'Brien, afflicted with polio as a boy and reliant on an iron lung for his breathing ever since, spending hours in the chamber every day, the only part of the journalist and poet's body more active and alert than his mind and mouth (which he uses to wield a pencil to type and dial the phone) is his penis.
The appendage involuntarily responds to his carers' attentions during sponge baths, and the 38-year-old virgin, understandably embarrassed, begins to think it may be time to do something about it. But Mark is also a practising Catholic and seeks guidance from his local, and newly-arrived priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy). Is it okay to have sex outside of marriage? Father Brendan, thrown for a loop at first, seems to think God might just be okay with it this time, you know, given the circumstances.
The relationship between parishioner and priest is one of the small delights of The Sessions, Australian director Ben Lewin's feature which, despite the subject matter (sex and the disabled), is never awkward. There's a light, naturalistic sense of humour which pervades the film, no doubt as a result of Lewin's own experiences with polio (suffering with it most of his life) as much as the character of O'Brien, who was in fact a real man (O'Brien's own article, On Seeing A Sex Surrogate, the basis of Lewin's screenplay).
So where does a disabled man go to have sex? Obviously not a prostitute when you're a devout Catholic. Enter sex surrogate Cheryl Green (Helen Hunt), who makes it quite clear on their first meeting, when Mark makes a financial faux pas, that she is no hooker. The wife and mother of a teenage son provides a service which, in six sessions (hence the title; originally the film was called The Surrogate) will cover body awareness and determine what makes Mark feel good sexually, before they finally go all the way.
Helen Hunt has been little seen on the big screen since winning the 1997 Best Actress Oscar for As Good As It Gets, but she makes a triumphant return in The Sessions. Hunt's Cheryl, with those happy-sad eyes of hers, is a warm but no-nonsense woman whose matter-of-factness is a good match for Mark's wit and naivete. Both she and Hawkes give terrific performances.
Hawkes contorts and twists his body, changes his breathing and his voice, all to convey the effort that goes into Mark's day-to-day existence. But Hawkes doesn't play O'Brien as a victim; he's a poet and an optimist and that shines through. That Hawkes conveys all of this while spending the entire film on his back, makes the performance all the more impressive.
On the other hand, I found the hypocrisy as it related to nudity a tad troubling. While Hunt frequently gets naked, including full frontal, the camera never moves below Hawkes' chest. I find it odd that a film about a man's sexual journey should be so reticent to even glimpse the appendage which more or less sets O'Brien's quest in motion.
Still, that's a minor complaint about a film that deals so sensitively, maturely and intelligently with the topic of sex. As naff as the terms 'life-affirming' and 'inspirational' are, The Sessions, and more specifically, Mark O' Brien, who died in 1999, certainly is.
And as a film about unlikely connections between able-bodied and differently-abled people, I found The Sessions to be far more subtle and rewarding than the insistent The Intouchables, France's Oscar entry (and possible, though unworthy, winner?) in the 2012 Foreign Language Film category.
Monday, 5 November 2012
One thing a writer enjoys more than a complex character or an original storyline is a welcome distraction, particularly when the words simply refuse to flow. So it is for Marty Faranan (Colin Farrell), an ex-pat Irishman screenwriter living in L.A. and struggling to come up with a screenplay.
He's got the title – Seven Psychopaths – and that's pretty much it. That's why Marty's always grateful (if not exactly happy) when his friend, Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell), a struggling actor with a sideline in dognapping, stops by. Billy's amusing company for the most part, you know, when he's not calling Marty out on his fondness for alcohol or is insisting to co-write with him (although he gives the Irishman one or two psychopathic anecdotes to springboard from).
But Billy's input and friendship are about to bring Marty a whole world of trouble. Worlds – and fact and fiction – collide when Billy steals the dog of a pooch-loving mobster, and real life psycho, Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson). This places Marty, Billy, and the latter's business partner, Hans (Christopher Walken), who may or may not be the source of one of Billy's psychopath anecdotes, in the crosshairs of Costello and his henchmen.
After the success of his feature film debut, In Bruges (one of my Top 10 Films of 2008), McDonagh was no doubt feted by Hollywood producers who wanted him to come to LA. and produce another film about wisecracking hit men only, you know, with Americans and more bullets and blood.
And there's certainly plenty of the latter. But what Seven Psychopaths also has is smarts. Like 2002's Adaptation, the Spike Jonze-Charlie Kaufman riff on the plight of a writer suffering a creative block whilst employed to adapt a bestselling novel, and becoming a character in his own screenplay as a result, McDonagh's film is as knowing and Meta as anything Kaufman – or current Meta-meister, Joss Whedon – could conjure.
But while Farrell's Marty is a barely disguised avatar for McDonagh, it's Rockwell's Billy Bickle who gets the lion's share of the best lines and the resultant laughs. Whether dissing Marty's girlfriend (an underused Abbie Cornish), or reciting by the camp fire, following the trio's decamping to the desert, how he thinks the third act of Marty's screenplay should climax, the always wonderful character actor is on fire.
Walken is terrific, too, with Hans the closest McDonagh comes to investing Seven Psychopaths with an actual heart. The elderly but no less debonair Pole (and maybe one-time Quaker) with a penchant for peyote, has a good heart but nothing to lose once he loses his wife (Linda Bright Clay).
McDonagh may seem like he, too, has nothing to lose – except maybe some fans disappointed that Psychopaths is not In Bruges 2.0 – going for broke with the violence, and dialogue to offend most everyone: there's a couple of n-words, more than the occasional c-bomb, and fag is liberally deployed.
But McDonagh, a playwright first and foremost, is more wordsmith than provocateur. He and his actors (including wonderful cameos by Gabourey Sidibe and Tom Waits) have fun with each other and the audience, at the expense of Hollywood, masculinity and yes, the none-too-easy but sometimes too precious act of writing. And this writer welcomed the distractions which Seven Psychopaths offered.