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Review – Spectre (12a) [2015]

Spectre - title banner

Star Rating: 3/5

Director:

  • Sam Mendes – American Beauty, Revolutionary Road, Skyfall

Cast:

  • Daniel Craig – The Trench, Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, Defiance, Skyfall
  • Ben Whishaw – The International, Cloud Atlas, Skyfall, Suffragette, The Danish Girl
  • Naomi Harris – Trauma, Pirates of the Caribbean II-III, The First Grader, Skyfall, Our Kind of Traitor
  • Ralph Fiennes – Harry Potter IV-VII(i) & VII(ii), Coriolanus, Wrath of the Titans, Skyfall, Hail, Caesar!
  • Léa Seydoux – Inglorious Basterds, Robin Hood, Mission: Impossible IV, Blue Is The Warmest Colour, Gambit
  • Monica Bellucci – The Matrix II-III, The Passion of the Christ, The Sorceror’s Apprentice, On The Milky Road
  • Christoph Waltz – Inglorious Basterds, Carnage, Django Unchained, Big Eyes, Tarzan
  • Dave Bautista – WWE Smackdown, WWF Raw, Guardians of the Galaxy, Warrior’s Gate
  • Andrew Scott – The Scapegoat, Pride, Alice In Wonderland II, Denial
  • Rory Kinnear – Quantum of Solace, Broken, Skyfall, Penny Dreadful, Trespass Against Us
  • Jesper Christensen – Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, The Debt, The King’s Choice
  • Judi Dench – Bond 17-23, Shakespeare In Love, Notes On A Scandal, My Week With Marilyn, Philomena, Tulip Fever

Music Composer:

What is the role of secret agents, and in particular, James Bond in the current era? Sir Ian Fleming, the author of the Bond novels, wrote Casino Royale in 1952. That was at the height of the Cold War between the USA and the USSR, when espionage involving personnel was at its zenith. But in 2015, the USSR no longer exists and espionage involving personnel has been downgraded due to technology. So, again, what is the role secret agents/James Bond nowadays? Spectre, Bond’s 24th outing, deals with this question in typical Bond fashion.

James Bond (Daniel Craig), looking worn and tired after an eventful trip to Mexico, gets a dressing down from M (Ralph Fiennes) upon his return to London.

James Bond (Daniel Craig), looking worn and tired after an eventful trip to Mexico, gets a dressing down from M (Ralph Fiennes) upon his return to London.

  Spectre opens up in Mexico City, wherein James Bond (Daniel Craig) acquires a ring bearing an octopus insignia. Upon returning to London, M (Ralph) demands that Bond explain what he was doing in Mexico. Bond refuses to explain, which leads to M indefinitely taking him off duty as a secret agent. Upon returning home, Bond re-watches a recording from his former superior, reminding him about a mysterious organisation called ‘Spectre.’ Despite having been removed from duty, Bond leaves London to unearth more about this shadowy organisation.

Meanwhile, in London, M:I-6 has a new intelligence officer, C (Andrew Scott). C has his own plans to take M:I-6 forward; one of which is to dismantle the ‘00’ programme, putting him on a collision course with M.

Spectre, in many ways, is an archetypal Bond movie. Does it have a spectacular opening sequence? Yes. Is there a trademark song afterward it? Yes. Does Spectre have some witty (touché) dialogue? Yes. Does the film have a glamorous-looking cast along with breath-taking locations? Yes. Does the movie have some brilliant stunts, action sequences, and cool explosions? Yes. Does it have a weak storyline in which viewers have to suspend their disbelief to go through with it, without laughing at it? Absolutely! Therefore, Spectre delivers on its (formulaic) expectations for a Bond movie.

Dr Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), looking glamorous, joins Bond for dinner.

Dr Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), looking glamorous, joins Bond for dinner.

However, in two ways, Spectre differs from most other Bond films. One, it makes enough references to other Bond films for it to be an homage to the Bond franchise; particularly, to those of the Craig era. And, two, Spectre is conspicuously slow-burning. Bond films tend to be fast-paced and filled with action to keep viewers interested during the supposedly less interesting parts of the film i.e. when Bond travels from one dazzling place to another, to find out information for the mission. Yet, at 150-minutes, Spectre has so much (often pointless) travelling that even the action sequences cannot keep viewers interested. In short, the movie needed to be cut by 30-45 minutes, especially during the middle hour where little happens. But because it has not been edited sufficiently, Spectre borders on boring at times, which is very unlike a Bond film.

Nevertheless, during these ‘boring’ parts, one gets to explore a different (vulnerable?) side of Bond’s character; notably, whether James Bond actually enjoys being James Bond. Not only is this elucidated adeptly, but due to Daniel Craig’s aging appearance it seems entirely apt to have these questions raised. Indeed, Craig looks old and worn in Spectre, as if the strain of being Bond has taken its toll on him. Still, he is marvellous, tough and wryly humorous as Bond; probably more so than in Skyfall.

Likewise, Ben Whishaw is a joy to watch as the funny and smart Q, as is Christolph Waltz as the mysterious, villainous Oberhauser; and as is Ralph Fiennes as the serious M. Léa Seydoux plays quite well, too, as Bond’s temperamental love-interest, Dr Madeleine Swann. Surprisingly, she has been given considerable character depth for a Bond Girl. Seydoux may lack chemistry with Craig on screen, but her character often drives Bond and the plot forward in interesting ways.

Bond's cunning nemesis, Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), the shadowy figure at the head of a clandestine organisation, known as 'Spectre.'

Bond’s cunning nemesis, Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), the shadowy figure at the head of a clandestine organisation, known as ‘Spectre.’

Between her and Bond, and M and C), Spectre tries to intellectually tackle important questions that have become extremely relevant to Western politics since 9/11. Fascinatingly, the movie discusses the role of secret agents and technology, hinting at how times have changed since the Cold War; and how much power spy organisations should be given regarding the surveillance of ordinary citizens. Granted, Spectre only tackles these questions on superficial levels (and with answers that one could have guessed from a Bond film). But at least the movie brings up these questions. They also add a layer of depth to the storyline, which is always welcome.

Over-all, Spectre is an all right James Bond movie. It is quite long, but fun and entertaining in ways that are reminiscent of so many other, previous films in the franchise. Nonetheless, Spectre differentiates itself from other Bond films by winking at fans with self-reference; by giving Bond and the other characters some depth; and, most notably, by trying to address complex issues that have plagued Western governments since the turn of the 21st-century. Spectre makes some valid arguments on the role of spies, technology, and the extent to which security organisations should be permitted to use surveillance in the current era. All of which enrich the Bond experience and will leave audiences thinking about them after the film has ended.

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Review – Philomena (12a) [2013]

Philomena - title banner

Star Rating: 3.5/5

Director:

  • Stephen Frears – The Queen, Tamara Drewe, Untitled Lance Armstrong Biopic

Cast:

  • Judi Dench – Shakespeare In LoveMy Week With Marilyn, Skyfall, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel I & IISpectre
  • Michelle Fairley – The Others, Harry Potter VII(i), Game of Thrones, Ironclad II
  • Steve Coogan – Tropic Thunder, What Maisie Knew, Northern Soul
  • Sophie Kennedy Clark – Dark Shadows, Nymphomaniac
  • Sean Mahon – Line of Fire, Reign of the Gargoyles, Dark Shadows
  • Charlie Murphy – Love/Hate, 71, Northmen: A Viking Saga

Music Composer:

Take Shelter, My Week With Marilyn and Shadow Dancer had solid premises and the potential to be very good films. Alas, they all shared the characteristics of being flat, lacking in character development, and running out of steam long before the end. It resulted in their latter scenes being overly predictable or trite, or both. Similarly, despite being a decent film, Philomena suffers from the same traits.

Young Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clark) holding her son tightly in the sole hour a day that she is given free time at the nunnery.

Young Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clark) holding her son tightly in the sole hour a day that she is given free time at the nunnery.

Philomena is a British drama set in 2003. The movie is based on the true story of how an elderly Irish lady, Philomena Lee (when young, played by Sophie Kennedy Clark; when old, by Judy Dench), came to find her son, Anthony (when adult, played by Sean Mahon).

Anthony was taken away from Philomena in the 1950s when he was a toddler by the nuns at a Catholic nunnery, while Philomena lived there as punishment for her sin of becoming pregnant outside of wedlock. But now she has the help of a journalist in Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), who has just lost his job as a Labour government advisor and a BBC reporter. He wants to write a story that will reinvigorate his career (as a Russian history author of all things) and helps Philomena to find out what happened to her son.

Philomena’s storyline is straightforward, logical and saddening, yet done with wittiness and dignity. The film wastes little time in getting the two main actors on screen together and moving them in the right direction, which is positive. Quaint Ireland is portrayed in a genial, green way, with cheerful locals down at the local pubbie, while a nasty side of the country is shed light upon by revealing some of the crimes of Catholic nunneries. (Naturally, the particular nunnery involved claim that Philomena distorts the truth and is misleading. As they would.)

Yet, Philomena rapidly feels tired, which is disappointing as one expects more from it. The movie is only 98 minutes long, but it feels longer. All the best jokes are in the trailer, so they lose their panache when said in the film. But in general the humour, which is far from dumb or slapstick, lacks the cutting edge of Woody Allen’s recent Blue Jasmine.

Philomena in her senior years (played by Judi Dench) talking about her past with Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) in the Irish countryside.

Philomena in her senior years (played by Judi Dench) talking about her past with Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) in the Irish countryside.

Moreover, Philomena has little character development and, like My Week With Marilyn, none of the characters seem to go anywhere either. This is despite the characters and the movie taking the correct (and predictable) steps towards the film’s (inevitable) conclusion, which is a strange and an unrewarding sensation as a viewer.

The lack of character arches is a real pity as some of the characters had the potential to be very interesting. Consequently, the acting lacks meat, even though all of the performances are good. Judi Dench is fine as the quirkily charming, if socially odd Philomena in her old age. But Dench’s performance is undermined by the fact that no-one believes she’s Irish. It does not help that Dench’s accent in the film flips between that of a Dubliner and the Queen’s English. In addition, as Dench is playing a role not too dissimilar to many of her past performances, audiences are invariably reminded that she’s English (in case they needed any reminding).

Steve Coogan plays decently as the disillusioned (and discourteous) man trying to find his way again after becoming unemployed in middle age. And Michelle Fairley, playing in a very different role to the dutiful Lady Catelyn Stark in Game of Thrones, gives a good and amusing performance (with the little screen time she has) in her native Irish accent as the ruthless editor, manipulating all the facts that Martin Sixsmiths relays to her in order to create a more enticing story for her newspaper.

Judi Dench (left) with the real Philomena Lee (right) at the premier.

Judi Dench (left) with the real Philomena Lee (right) at the premier.

However, arguably the best performance of the film is from Sophie Kennedy Clark, as the young Philomena. In spite of the harsh living conditions in the nunnery, Clark demonstrates a mother’s true happiness when she holds her young son in her arms, as well as a mother’s brokenness when her son is taken away. Like Fairley, Clark is not in the film for very long. But the scenes with her on screen are the only emotional ones in this otherwise quite dull movie.

All-in-all, Philomena is a fine film. The movie provides audiences with a decent insight into the mean, inner workings of Catholic nunneries in Ireland in the 1950s, and has a good cast that deliver their lines well enough. Yet, Philomena lacks energy and runs out of puff long before its running time is over. Likewise, the film’s humour, general flatness, and lack of character development makes viewers feel like they’re cutting meat with a blunt knife. All the key ingredients to Philomena should have been sharper and more engaging as the film’s premise is a fascinating one.

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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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