Review: Spectre

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DIR: Sam Mendes • WRI: John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Jez Butterworth • PRO: Barbara Broccoli, Michael G. Wilson • DOP: Hoyte Van Hoytema • ED: Lee Smith • DES: Dennis Gassner • MUS: Thomas Newman • CAST: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Ralph Fiennes

Well, here we are. Probably one of the most anticipated Bond movies of all time and likely the most hyped, non-Disney film of the year. Not to mention our first full look at how the producers’ experiment to Marvel-ise the Bond franchise has panned out.

After taking some ‘personal time’ in Mexico, Bond (Craig) is not in M’s (Fiennes) good books; Bond’s actions aren’t reflecting well on a Double-O section that’s already facing opposition from MI-5 in the form of Denbigh (Scott). Grounded until further notice, Bond enlists the help of Moneypenny (Harris) and Q (Whishaw) to go rogue and finish the mission he started in Mexico. Following some vague (and plot-hole-riddled-but-don’t-question-it) clues Bond finds himself on the trail of Oberhauser (Waltz). As the true scale of Oberhauser’s organisation becomes clear in the form of SPECTRE, a large and troubling picture comes into view with grave ramifications for not only global safety but for Bond personally as he finds himself caught in a web of events that stretches all the way back through his previous adventures and right back to his origins both as a character and within the Craig-era films on the whole.

This film has a bit of an identity crisis. And by extension so does this (very fanboy centric) opinion of it. On the one hand you have a film that’s trying very hard to show you it belongs in the same club as the classic entries in the series; be it the humour, gadgets, locations or villains. But on the other hand is trying with admirable determination to cement the idea of the entire Craig-era being one long, elaborate continuity. A task it succeeds too well at, to a detrimental degree. (By so convincingly pretending this was all planned out in advance, they’ve undermined various characters and plot points in previous movies and likely created a nightmarish miasma of plot holes.) So filled with homages is the film that any self-respecting Bond fan owes it to themselves to go see this yet the actual cinemagoer aspect of one’s brain can’t ignore how obnoxiously overlong and utterly devoid of pacing it is. (For comparison, Casino Royale is only five or so minutes shorter than this, yet this feels like it easily veers toward Lord of the Rings length and Dark Knight Rises levels of poor pacing.) This is to say nothing of the fact that the shoehorned-in destiny that this version of the Bond-verse is now saddled with will likely irritate longtime fans as much as seeing the return of familiar elements will delight them.

It is a pity that the only major complaint one can level at this as a film is the pacing/length issue because otherwise this hits practically every mark in terms of being both a great action-adventure-spy movie and a great Bond movie. This is one of the finest casts this series has ever assembled and they’re all great (your Waltz milage may vary and Andrew Scott is merely decent but otherwise, superb) and more importantly they all get a lot of screen time. Additionally, the locations are all gorgeously shot and visually diverse, while the action set-pieces are impeccably staged and suitably inventive. Yet the pacing issue works against every one of those positives. Welcome as the increased screen time for M, Moneypenny, Q, et al is, it comes at the expense of grinding to a halt an already sluggish A-plot and in some cases kills the pacing of an action scene (great car chase, fun Moneypenny-at-home scene; terrible as one sequence), and that’s when the film isn’t just arbitrarily ruining more singularly focused scenes. Skyfall’s pre-titles sequence stands out as one of the series’ finest and most action packed yet despite upping both the scale and ambition, SPECTRE’s keeps needlessly stopping and starting to a maddening degree. If ever there was an argument for the merits of why deleted scenes should stay deleted or how necessary a merciless Harvey Weinstein figure can be in the editing room, it’s this movie.

All this would be more acceptable if it was in service of something and while there are interesting ideas brought up in terms of both political commentary and franchise deconstruction (hell, even the title sequence brings up interesting notions of reversing the usual objectification/vulnerability dynamic), yet all of these are given comparatively little screen time. A solid half an hour of this film could go; the humour could be punchier, the dead air in conversations could be minimised, the action scenes could be much more breathlessly edited and the film on the whole would stand much stronger. Make no mistake this is far from a bad movie and very far from a bad Bond movie. This is absolutely worth seeing but the disappointment in the final result is an unfortunately niggling aftertaste.

Hardcore Bond fans might ultimately be a little annoyed and average filmgoers might be a little bored but this is still every bit the grandiose spectacle we were promised. Mendes has continued to push the line of what we consider a Bond movie and Thomas Newman’s score feels much more comfortable this time around; teasingly experimental while retaining familiar elements and with more inclusion of the Bond theme than we’ve had since the Brosnan era. The level of bombast has only grown, Craig continues to be unable to put a foot wrong and this has one of the boldest endings in the franchise’s history. If after fifty-three years, this series can still put a smile on this jaded cynic’s face and still leave you wondering what the ending means for how the franchise may evolve, someone somewhere is doing something right.

Richard Drumm


12A (see IFCO for details)

147 minutes

Spectre is released 22nd October 2015

Spectre –  Official Website

 

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Big Eyes

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DIR: Tim Burton • WRI: Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski • PRO: Scott Alexander, Tim Burton, Lynette Howell, Larry Karaszewski • DOP: Bruno Delbonnel • ED: JC Bond • DES: Rick Heinrichs • MUS: Danny Elfman • CAST: Christoph Waltz, Amy Adams, Krysten Ritter

As unfair as this is on the man, the best Tim Burton films are often the least Burtonesqueone. While the cartoonish Gothic shtick has certainly served him well – most obviously in his early career – many would surely agree it has led to rather diminishing returns in more recent times. He’s clearly a talented, individual director, but one who dances perilously close to self-parody on occasion. That’s not even mentioning the something of an over-reliance on certain collaborators, no matter how ill-suited they are to the task at hand.

 

That’s why it’s refreshing on those rare occasions when he breaks out of his dominant mode of expression – I for one definitely would not object to another film in the vein of Ed Wood, or even Big Fish. On the surface, it looks as if Big Eyes should capably serve that purpose – heck, it doesn’t even feature Johnny Depp! Excepting the absence of the earlier film’s star, the similarities to the delightful Ed Wood are fairly striking – they’re both based on bizarre real-life stories, they’re both period pieces, and they even share screenwriters (Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander). But while Ed Wood was an atypical Tim Burton film in a refreshing way, Big Eyes instead comes across as disappointingly anonymous.

 

The stranger-than-fiction tale at the film’s centre is that of Margaret and Walter Keane, played by Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz respectively. As the film opens, Margaret is leaving her first husband, and she moves to bohemian San Francisco with her daughter Jane. Margaret wants to be an artist, and her particular skill is the creation of portraits of wide-eyed ‘waifs’. While trying to sell the portraits one day, she meets charming amateur artist Walter. The two hit it off, and are soon married (a decision aided by a legal letter from husband number one). Walter is dedicated to striking it big with his art, but while holding an ‘exhibition’ in a jazz bar’s corridor, he discovers that it’s actually Margaret’s art that is making the biggest impression. One thing leads to another, and he manages to convince Margaret he should take credit for the paintings, because ‘women’s art doesn’t sell’. Soon, the waifs are a huge commercial hit. Margaret covertly toils away at creating the paintings while Walter takes credit, but it’s a secret that starts eating away at her.

 

Big Eyes’ evocation of the 1950s and 60s is a peculiar mix of pleasant and bland – which, to be honest, sums up the film as a whole. Everything is kept ticking over without grave offense being caused, but it consistently fails to really explore the material in a satisfying or surprising way. Take the relationship between Frank and Margaret. There’s an interesting dynamic of domination and submission, but Burton and the writers never tease the nuances out, relying instead on the broadest of brush strokes.

 

The only obvious DNA Big Eyes shares with sections of Tim Burton’s filmography – barring a very weak Danny Elfman score – are the bigeyed waifs. Margaret Keane’s style must have influenced the director’s animated work in particular, subconsciously or otherwise. In this case, though, the film as a whole suffers due to a lack of authorial signature. There’s one or two well handled sequences where the Keane style seeps into the real world with the aid of some imaginatively creepy effects work. In fact, other compositions in the film are sometimes inspired by the wider world of mid-century pop art in quite witty ways (a Warhol reference during a supermarket reference is not subtle, but still serves as a neat throwaway visual gag). Those are the rare moments when some of the film’s otherwise confused themes and underwhelming visual identity are operating on roughly the same page, and one wishes the rest of the film operated as effectively.

 

One of the film’s major problems is that it boasts a great cast, but a script that does not offer them anything in the way of meaty material. Amy Adams acquits herself well enough in what is easily the closest thing the film has to a three-dimensional role. Waltz gives it his all, but cannot possibly elevate a character that is written as a crude caricature. Walter Keane is portrayed as a transparently manipulative, selfish and domineering con artist – albeit with a rougish charm. While it may be somewhat true to life (it goes without saying I am not in a position to make that assessment), it’s a point made sufficiently early on, and the writers’ disdain for him only increases as the film progresses to the point of pettiness. As a result, Keane becomes more and more of a one-note character,  and no amount of Waltz’s talent can save Walter as he transforms into a pantomime antagonist. At least Waltz has plenty of opportunity to chew the scenery. Spare a thought for Jason Schwartzman and Terence Stamp, playing an arrogant gallery owner and snooty art critic respectively – two already crude stock types, written in an even cruder way.

Buried somewhere in Big Eyes is a debate about the nature of art and entertainment; the conflict between elitism and populism; an ode to authorship; an exploration of mid-century gender politics. The story itself is so straight-up odd that it cannot help but be strangely compelling, not least the farcical legal proceedings that brought the core conflict to something of a close (and easily the dramatic and comedic highlight here). Big Eyes, though, is not a film that explores any of that in anything more than a perfunctory, mildly entertaining way. Tim Burton films often suffer from a surplus of character – Big Eyes could have used some of the overflow.

Stephen McNeice

 

12A (See IFCO for details)
105 minutes.
Big Eyes
is released 26th December.

Big Eyes  – Official Website

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Cinema Review: The Zero Theorem

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DIR: Terry Gilliam • WRI: Pat Rushin • PRO: Nicolas Chartier, Dean Zanuck • DOP: Nicola Pecorini • ED: Mick Audsley • MUS: George Fenton • DES: David Warren • CAST: Christoph Waltz, Mélanie Thierry, David Thewlis, Lucas Hedges

 

First off, let’s just say it: Terry Gilliam’s movies are not for everyone.  Much like Wes Anderson or Terence Malick, there is often a certain knowledge level of the director’s previous work and style required before buying a ticket for the Terry-train.  This is certainly more true with The Zero Theorem, as it is his avowed final part of the dystopian trilogy that includes Brazil (1985) and 12 Monkeys (1995).  However, if you’re willing to suspend your cynicism and follow Gilliam into the rabbit-hole, there is much to genuinely love about this movie.

 

The story centres on Qohen (a fantastically quirky Christoph Waltz), who refers to himself using various group descriptors – ‘we’, ‘us’, ‘ourselves’ etc. – in a frantic attempt to patch together into one being the jumble of neuroses and phobias that plague his monotonous existence.  Qohen inhabits a typically Gilliam futuristic landscape, one which seems to exist outside of any knowledge of present technology or even the internet – far more connected with his 1985 vision of the future than a 2014 reimagining.  However, this world is total Gilliam, and it felt a comfortable (if nostalgic) fit in the darkened cinema as the familiar horrible, noisy, disconnected, impersonal metropolitan landscape unfolded onscreen.  A reclusive computer genius, the concern which drives Qohen from his cloister into this horror of humanity each day is the idea that somehow Management will grant his heart’s desire: to work from home.  This simple request would rescue him from the hellish daily grind of the cubicle, and allow him time to await a phone call he is convinced will tell him his purpose in life.  Eventually he gets his wish, in the form of a doomed project which has brought anyone who has worked on it to the brink of insanity.  He must prove the Zero Theorem – the central question of ‘Life, the Universe and Everything’…to coin a phrase!

 

Tempted by the supposed solitude he can now enjoy, Qohen is instead slowly brought back into the world by various intrusions into his closely-monitored, meagre existence.  His dim-witted sycophantic manager Joby (David Thewlis) becomes an attempted friend; Dr. Shrink-Rom (Tilda Swinton) is assigned/switched-on to keep him sane; and Management sends wilful and disrespectful teenager Bob (Lucas Hedges) to further expand his tiny world.  His most important relationship blossoms with the beautiful and untrustworthy Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry, absolutely chewing the screen), who brings a sexual and romantic element to his otherwise sparse life.

 

Basically the overarching story is fairly bare, and exists purely to allow Qohen to explore questions of philosophy and hope in a world of oppressive technology.  There isn’t much new of note in the movie, and it doesn’t raise questions that haven’t been asked a hundred times over.  This, at times, can make the film feel a little clunky – and perhaps a little out of its time.  The inhuman institutions of power and intersecting realities are par for the course with Gilliam, and it doesn’t quite manage to feel as refreshing or original as the first two parts of his dystopian trilogy.

 

BUT it has to be said that this is Gilliam’s best movie for years, and it looks and feels like an exciting re-entry into the mind of a man who imagines the worst, but hopes for the best.  The Zero Theorem might not set the world alight, but it is somehow both comforting and exhilarating to know that filmmakers like Terry Gilliam are still out there, flying the flag for nonconformity and chaotic beauty.

 

Sarah Griffin

15A (See IFCO for details)
106 mins

The Zero Theorem is released on 14th March 2014

The Zero Theorem – Official Website

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Cinema Review: Django Unchained

 

DIR/WRI: Quentin Tarantino • PRO: Reginald Hudlin, Pilar Savone, Stacey Sher • DOP: Robert Richardson • ED: Fred Raskin • DES: J. Michael Riva • CAST: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington
 

The last few years have seen Tarantino’s star wane – his name, once a byword for a kind of hyperactive cinema offering snappy dialogue and copious un-PC violence had curdled audience enthusiasm to boredom as he seemed incapable of evolution.  While his naughties’ output occasionally hinted at an old genius, most particularly with Inglourious Basterds, it has taken a film like Django Unchained to collate his messy strands of filmmaking back into an entertaining movie.  Think Blazing Saddles meets Mickey and Mallory!

Django Unchained hits all the right notes for a Tarantino fan – from the soundtrack and dialogue to the schlock violence and derision, he conjures a reimagining of history so brutal and entertaining that the long running time practically flies by.  There are faults, to be sure – indeed, even fans of Tarantino will sigh as his megalomania takes over from time to time, shoe-horning his ego, and himself, into unrelated scenes.  And these faults do trip up an otherwise seamless flow, leaving plenty of room for after-film arguments across pints or coffee…which is exactly what a non-film-schooled director would want from his audience.  Of course, then there is the racism – Tarantino has been building towards a film like this his entire cinematic career, from using Samuel L. Jackson as a sort of muse to his own embarrassing efforts at ‘gangsta’ talk.  You can’t help but feel that he’s getting extreme pleasure from the artistic licence afforded him by setting his movie pre-Civil War, and making his hero a freed slave.  As a revisionist Western it has holes on a par with Wild Wild West (please – no more cowboy ray-bans!), but fans of Tarantino will know that his coolness permeates even to the past.  And copious use of the ‘n’ word aside, this reimagining of racial warfare in the Deep South manages what Basterds did not in creating a wholly blasphemous take on history that actually rings (somewhat) true.  More than that, since we now have Christoph Waltz on our side, we can finally cheer the good guys with undivided gusto.

The casting is, of course, the real revelation.  Waltz takes Tarantino’s sometimes mangled use of language and ups the ante on its coolness – nobody else could deliver his words with such panache and class.  His interpretation of a bounty hunter caught between common humanity and simple moneymaking is by turns hilarious and excessive, but always mesmerising.  The usually unlikeable Jamie Foxx takes the melodramatic title role of Django, and succeeds in giving life to Tarantino’s immense creation.  Foxx excels by not taking himself too seriously, and the ridiculous scenarios and fantastical lines flow much more smoothly for having no thespian illusions blocking their way.  Along with Waltz, the big talking point has been Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of plantation owner and all-round bastard, Calvin J. Candie – and oh does he fill that role with relish!  His over-the-top accent and ridiculous cruelty anchor the movie in its time – pre-Civil War Southern USA, where white men ruled with an iron fist.  Ably helped by his ruthless slave confidant Stephen (Jackson), their interplay is so powerfully malicious and hyperbolic that only Django’s dramatic drive for both his freedom and his wife can balance their scene-stealing machinations.

The running time does hint at Tarantino’s inability to find fault with any of his creations – he can rarely bear to leave anything on the cutting room floor, and there are certainly scenes that could have benefited from the chop.  Despite its flaws, though, Django has so many parts that offer pure entertainment that – as long as you don’t take it too seriously – it’s nearly impossible not to be invested in some way.  The bottom line is that while it is politically-incorrect, facetious, ridiculous and crazy, it is also Tarantino at his best – kinetic, irreverent and downright entertaining!

Sarah Griffin

Rated 18 (see IFCO website for details)

165 mins

Django Unchained is released on 17th January 2013

Django Unchained – Official Website

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v-4r_B8hY_I

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