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Review – Skyfall (12a) [2012]

Star Rating: 3.5/5

Director:

  • Sam Mendes – American Beauty, Road To Perdition, Revolutionary RoadSpectre

Cast:

Music Composer:

The 1990s was a pretty decent era for James Bond. Goldeneye, Tomorrow Never Dies and The World Is Not Enough were all very acceptable Bond films. But then, in 2002, Die Another Die ruined it all. Subsequently, MGM, the owners of the 007 franchise, completely changed the direction of Bond to make it more original, as Casino Royale (2006) and The Quantum of Solace demonstrate. Skyfall cleverly continues this trend, but not without hitches.

The stunning and enigmatic Sévérine (Bérénice Malohe). Her style and dangerous background make her an apt fit for Bond’s affections.

Skyfall begins with M (Judi Dench) coming under intense pressure to resign, following a failed mission in Turkey. After meeting with Gareth Mellory (Ralph Fiennes), the British Intelligence and Security Committee Chairman, M discovers that the computer in her office in MI6 has been hacked and a bomb explodes in MI6 headquarters. M subsequently turns to her secret agents, Eve (Naomi Harris) and James Bond (Daniel Craig), who is suffering from psychological problems following events in Turkey, to find out who was behind the attack.

There is much to admire about Skyfall. That a significant proportion of it is filmed in Britain is bold; it gives us a hint at how MI6 might work in the event of war on British soil; and the last scene of the movie is very clever. Also, for the first 100 minutes or so, the plot is logical and intelligent. Cyber-terrorism is a very current issue, and director Sam Mendes conveys the threat well.

It is just a shame that the last 44 minutes drag and has only a tenuous link to the first part of the film. Indeed, it renders the purpose of going to exotic Shanghai pointless (not that that was ever more than a cynical attempt to tap into the Chinese market) and, worse, it throws up plagiarism issues with the exceptionally magnificent Batman Begins.

Eve (Naomi Harris) dressed classily, while in the midst of an MI6 operation.

Moreover, Skyfall appears to be torn in several directions. Sir Ian Fleming wrote James Bond as a satire on the British secret service. Yet, because MGM now want Bond to be more grounded (and even bleed), the fundamental element of 007 has been lost. Additionally, if MGM truly want to make Bond plausible, they should look toward Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Shadow Dancer, and remove the Expendables-/Mission: Impossible-style stunts and action scenes. Those always look ridiculous and undermine all attempts at realism. (Besides, those scenes have become so clichéd that one is unlikely to miss them.)

The change of direction for 007 movies has also greatly impacted upon the appearance and character of James Bond, himself. Nevertheless, it is not Craig’s blond hair and lighter features that differentiate him from his predecessors, Roger Moore and Pearce Brosnan. Rather, it is his black humour, as well as his lack of suave and touché lines. That is not to say that Craig performs badly as the Bond he’s been asked to perform; actually, he’s rather good. But that doesn’t make him seem any more like the James Bond of old.

Yet, it is not just Craig’s Bond that has been given a new lease of life; the villains have too. Silva, embraced whole-heartedly and delightfully by the Oscar-winning Javier Bardem, is by far the most flamboyant and hilarious Bond baddie. However, it is blatantly obvious that Sam Mendes drew his inspiration from the villains in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (and he didn’t need to spell it out in an interview either). Mendes should have been aware that stepping onto the haloed territory of the Joker and, to a lesser extent, Two-Face is like trying to win a game of ice-hockey while skating on thin ice. Can anyone really say with conviction that Bardem’s Silva was on a par with Heath Ledger’s Joker?

The blond-haired villain, Silva (Javier Bardem), teases Bond, while the latter is tied up. Haven’t we seen such a scenario before?

Craig and Bardem aside, the performances from Ralph Fiennes and Judi Dench are typically strong and down to earth. The same can be said for Ben Whishaw, who plays the young, new Q with much spirit and humour to make himself, potentially, the long-term successor to the late Desmond Llewelyn.

Conversely, Naomi Harris, as Eve, never convinces that she’s a secret agent, unlike Jessica Chastain in The Debt or Julia Roberts in Duplicity. Harris’ Eve also lacks chemistry with Craig’s Bond. Maybe both of those things are deliberate, but if that is true then MI6 would never have sent her into the field, thereby revealing another flaw in the movie’s attempt at realism.

All-in-all, Skyfall is not a bad film and continues the interesting trend of Casino Royale and The Quantum of Solace. Skyfall has intelligence and a cast that does justice to the more credible, if unconventional direction that MGM have taken Bond toward. This does not mean that the film is problem-free, aside from being too long and recycling parts of Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. No, if MGM truly wish for 007 to depart from the approach of the 1990s Bond films, they must not stand half-way as they have here: they must make James Bond chillingly realistic.

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Review – Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace 3D (U) [2012; originally released in 1999]

Star Rating: 2.5/5

Star Wars, the saga that revolutionised special effects, has returned to the cinema. Thirteen years after it left the big screens, and now poorly adapted into 3D, Episode I: The Phantom Menace provides viewers with a convenient excuse to review the franchise from the beginning, and once more enjoy enlarged lightsaber v sith duels and mesmerising sci-fi-style battle scenes. (Warning, spoilers in this review.)

Young Anakin (Jake Lloyd). It is hard to see him as the masked villain of the saga at this point.

The Phantom Menace begins with turmoil engulfing the Galactic Republic. The Trade Federation has put up a blockade around the planet Nabu, due to a new taxation in trade routes. The Trade Federation wants to bring Nabu’s queen, Amidala (Natalie Portman – Black Swan, Thor, Lawless), to her knees and make her yield to their demands, using any means at their disposal.

Unknown to the Trade Federation, the Jedi Council have sent two Jedi knights, Qui-Gon Jin (Liam Neeson – The Next Three Days, Unknown, Wrath of the Titans) and his apprentice, Obi-Won Kenobi (Ewan McGregor – Star Wars I-III, Beginners, The Impossible), to rescue Amidala. That way she can bring her case to the Senate. Yet, as they fly past the blockade, their starship is damaged and they are forced to land on Tatooine to repair the ship.

On Tatooine, a planet outside of the republic’s orbit, Qui-Gon and Amidala come across a cute, little slave boy, called Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd – Jingle All The Way, The Pretender, Madison). Qui-Gon sees something in Anakin, believing him to be the one who will bring balance to the Force.

After buying Anakin’s freedom, via the young boy’s pod race success, Qui-Gon takes him to the Jedi Council, where he hopes the council will allow him to train Anakin as his second apprentice. But the council is wary of Anakin. Yoda (Frank Oz – Star Wars I-VI, Sesame Street, Monsters University) and Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson – Star Wars I-III, Coach Carter, The Avengers Assemble) sense ‘great fear’ in him. They’re not wrong because Anakin fears for his mother’s survival. But, still, fear can only lead one way: the dark side.

Simultaneously, the unknown (phantom-like) Sith Lord and future emperor, Darth Sidious (Ian McDiarmid – Star Wars I-III & VI, Crime & Punishment, Margaret), urges his stooges in the Trade Federation to find Qui-Gon and Obi-Won. When they fail, Darth Sidious orders his apprentice, Darth Maul (Ray Park – X-Men, Heroes, Avarice), to find and kill the Jedi knights.

Queen Amidala/Padmé (Natalie Portman) leading from the front in the fight for the freedom of her planet.

The plot for The Phantom Menace is enjoyable and surprisingly intelligent. The film has a thrilling pod race tournament and the second best lightsaber v sith battle of the franchise (second after the epic duel between Obi-Won and Anakin/Darth Vader in Episode III: Revenge of the Sith); yet, the disputes over the trade blockade also make for a fascinating insight into the political workings of the republic.

More than anything, the disagreements in the republic reveal the cunning of Senator Palpatine (also Ian McDiarmid), as he slowly lays down the foundations for his arrogation of power. Behind the scenes, Palpatine commands the Trade Foundation (which will become the Separatist movement later in the series) to declare war on Nabu. To Queen Amidala, though, his advice is to go to the Senate and urge Chancellor Valorum (Terence Stamp – Wanted, The Adjustment Bureau, Big Eyes) to take action against the Trade Foundation. But knowing that the chancellor is incapable of doing that, due to being hamstrung by ‘bureaucrats’ (most likely Palpatine’s cronies), Palpatine recommends Amidala to call for a vote of no confidence in Valorum in the Senate to pave the way for a ‘stronger’ chancellor. (And guess who Palpatine might mean by that? Isn’t it a coincidence that he just happens to be voted in next?)

At the same time, Palpatine promises young Anakin that he will ‘watch over’ his Jedi training and be a father-like figure to him. The kindness of the gesture is unsettling to watch, knowing that Palpatine intends to exploit Anakin’s vulnerabilities to groom him as his long-term apprentice.

Ian McDiarmid plays well as the duplicitous Palpatine, despite the character’s crudeness. Yet, the star of the film is undoubtedly Liam Neeson. Even the most ridiculous of lines seem (almost) plausible when he speaks, and nothing looks (overly) contrived either. The same cannot be said for Natalie Portman or Ewan McGregor, who both give very poor and detached displays; whilst Jake Lloyd’s performance is passable at best. His enthusiasm and confidence (obnoxiousness) is refreshing at first, but becomes repetitive and annoying after a while.

The fantastic three-way fight scene between Qui-Gon, Obi-Won and Darth Maul. Who will not survive?

The acting and dialogue may not be noteworthy, but the special effects are enthralling (even if they’ve been touched up considerably since 1999). It is just a shame that the 3D is hardly visible. The three-way duel at the end would have been even more of a spectacle had it been properly adapted; especially, with the atmospheric theme ‘Duel of the Fates’ for accompaniment.

Although the 3D is inadequate, The Phantom Menace is an entertaining movie. Once more, audiences can enjoy the impressive battle scenes and pod races; be dazzled by the special effects and lightsabers; and be intrigued by the way Palpatine abuses his powers for his ultimate goals. But most importantly of all, The Phantom Menace starts to explain how and why Anakin becomes Darth Vedar.

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Review – Mission: Impossible IV – Ghost Protocol (12a) [2011]

Star Rating: 3.5/5

The accomplishments of Ethan Hunt, America’s most implausible secret agent, throughout the Mission: Impossible franchise, have been nothing short of incredible (in the true sense of the word). Whether it is dodging bullets and explosions; going down elevator shafts; removing countless different face-masks; procuring files from encrypted computer systems; or tracking down his enemies across the world and killing them, Ethan has never let his country down. In entertaining fashion, Mission: Impossible IV – Ghost Protocol is more of the same, just with the latest technological gadgets.

The villian, ‘Cobalt’ (Michael Nyqvist), talking on the phone to execute his orders to launch a missile.

After a failed mission in Budapest to get hold of Russian nuclear missile codes, the Impossible Missions Force (IMF) Secretary (Tom Wilkinson – Shakespeare In Love, The Debt, Denial) launches the mission ‘Ghost Protocol’ and sends Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise – Mission Impossible I-III, Valkyrie, One Shot) into the field with a team, consisting of Benji (Simon Pegg – Mission Impossible III, Paul, Star Trek I & II), Jane (Paula Patton – Déjà Vu, Precious, Disconnect) and Brandt (Jeremy Renner – S.W.A.T., The Hurt Locker, The Avengers Assemble). The IMF needs to find an agent known by the codename ‘Cobalt’ (Michael Nyqvist – Arn: The Knight Templar, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Disconnect), who has apparently got access to the codes, and stop him from launching nuclear war.

In the meantime, the Kremlin is threatened by a bomb attack and believes that the Americans are behind it. Thus, Ethan and his team, in a mission that will take them to many countries, must go rogue if they are to succeed.

The storyline for Ghost Protocol is quite simple at its core. It undoubtedly lacks the realism of Munich and The Debt (and even makes James Bond films appear plausible). Nevertheless, director Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille, 1906) gives one what he/she would want to see in a film like Ghost Protocol, such as plenty of explosions (although nowhere near as many as in the colossal Transformers III), and stunts that are so ludicrous one needs a sack of salt to believe what he/she is watching (for a pinch of the stuff would not be enough).

If he’s not jumping down an a shoot, Ethan (Tom Cruise) is climbing the tallest skyscraper in Dubai.

Yet, as has been typical with the Mission: Impossible series, Ghost Protocol’s plot has a convoluted nature that differentiates this franchise from the Bond films and the Bourne series. Consequently, Ghost Protocol may not be so easy to follow. Whilst audiences are likely to realise that Ethan and his team are hunting ‘Cobalt’, the various other characters that flow in and out of the movie, as well as the subplots, complicate the storyline unnecessarily.

Moreover, the film’s plot is not aided by the dialogue. Viewers with a brain would be advised not to scrutinise the conversations held by the characters. Rarely do the discussions make sense to the extent that it’s remarkable that the protagonists can even contribute to their conversations. (That they understand their instructions is nothing short of miraculous!)

At least none of the actors take their roles overly seriously; if they had done, their performances would have been as pitiful as those in Fantastic Four I & II and in Captain America. However, since there is little pretence on behalf of the protagonists of the ludicrous nature of the film, all of the actors give decent and humorous, if unmemorable, displays: Tom Cruise plays (probably himself) with the same arrogance and ingenuity that he is so accustomed to playing; Simon Pegg makes his usual goofy jokes, and is the same IT-wizard of Mission: Impossible III; Jeremy Renner reprises the skills he learned in S.W.A.T., without adding much more to the movie; and Paula Patton looks good and has a surprisingly large role (especially considering that the Mission: Impossible franchise has been dominated by Cruise showing the world that he is the latest version of Action Man).

The only one who loses out is the villain played by Michael Nyqvist, since he appears so little on screen. As a corollary, Nyqvist does not get the opportunity to show audiences of his capabilities as an actor, which he illustrated so well in the Swedish adaptation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and its sequels.

Ethan and Jane (Paula Patton) dressed very nicely for a lavish party. Jane is hoping to catch someone’s eye.

Lastly, the special effects and the technical gadgets used throughout Ghost Protocol are outstanding. The effects may not look as spectacular as in Harry Potter VII: Part II, but they are certainly convincing. Similarly, the gadgets are fully up-to-date and employed as impressively as when Ethan used the then-new tool, called the internet, in Mission: Impossible I. (Oh how far we have advanced!)

Over-all, Ghost Protocol gives (Tom Cruise as) Ethan Hunt another chance to achieve the unachievable and save America (and the world) from catastrophe. The film throws in more explosions, impractical objectives and improbable scenarios, as well as the latest technology, to a franchise that has always made for senseless and outrageously far-fetched, but enjoyable viewing.

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Review – Unknown (15) [2011]

Star Rating: 3/5

After viewing the trailer for Unknown, one gets the impression that they’ve seen this type of action film before. One knows the movie won’t be great, but will probably be worth the watch. On this premise, Unknown does not let the audience down.

The car crash that leaves Dr. Martin Harris, played by Liam Neeson, in a coma for four days.

The film revolves around Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson – Schindler’s List, Star Wars I, The Dark Knight Rises), a researcher/lecturer who is in Berlin for a conference, with his wife, Liz (January Jones – Madmen, American Pie: The Wedding, Anger Management). Martin realises, once he’s at the hotel he’s due to stay at, that he has left a suitcase at the airport. On his way back to the airport, an accident occurs. A fridge-freezer falls out of the van in front of the cab. The cab driver, Gina (Diane Kruger – Troy, National Treasure I & II, Inglorious Basterds), swerves out of the way; but loses control of the vehicle. The car smashes into a boundary on a bridge and crashes into the lake.

When Martin wakes up, he’s in hospital after spending four days in a coma. No-one has come to look for him, including his wife. Martin releases himself early from hospital so as to find Liz. However, when he finds her, she maintains that she’s never seen him; plus she is with another man who also claims to be Dr. Martin Harris (Aiden Quinn – Wild Child, Legends of the Fall, Frankenstein). Without ID ‘the real’ Dr. Martin Harris has no way of proving his identity. To compound matters for the ‘real Martin’, he soon discovers that people are after him and he has no clue why.

The plot for Unknown is entertaining and fast paced, despite having many loose-ends. It also has car chases so far-fetched that those in The Fast And The Furious series may not look so ridiculous anymore. The twist is not unpredictable either, but this does not ruin the film.

The ‘real Dr. Martin Harris’ being taken away by security after his wife, Liz, claims that she doesn’t recognise him.

The quality of the acting is about as good as the storyline. Liam Neeson plays decently enough as usual; although this is far from his most challenging role. As January Jones and Aiden Quinn don’t appear much on screen, it’s hardly fair to judge them. The same can be said for Bruno Gantz (who plays Adolf Hitler in Downfall; The Reader) and Frank Llangela (Superman Returns, Frost/Nixon, Wall Street 2).

The only other actor with a notable role in Unknown is Diane Kruger. Despite looking pretty (and skinny) throughout the movie, her Bosnian accent is hardly plausible. It is interesting that the director, Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan, House of Wax, Goal II: Living The Dream), chose to play her as a Bosnian when filming in her native country. Then again, one does suppose that actors are paid to act. If that is the case then Kruger’s performance is not much better than her Bosnian accent. It is also hard to imagine one behaving in the way Gina does; especially once she grasps the reality of Martin’s situation.

All in all, Unknown is a distinctly average movie that is fun and entertaining. It is a light film devoid of complexity and quality; yet, filled with action and a solid performance from Liam Neeson.

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