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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 – 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 – Wrath of the Titans 3D (12a) [2012]

Star Rating: 2.5/5

The poverty of Clash of the Titans was so blatant, it was embarrassing. Yet, after making an astonishing near-$500million, Hollywood has (rather unsurprisingly) made a sequel. And with Jonathan Liebesman (Darkness Falls, Battle: Los Angeles, Ninja Turtles) replacing Louis Leterrier as director, Wrath of the Titans is a marked improvement on the first in the series.

Perseus (Sam Worthington), the mortal son of Zeus, taking on a one-eyed giant. Perseus’s hand must be stronger than it looks to hold the giant’s strength at bay.

Wrath of the Titans takes place in ancient Greece, ten years after Perseus defeated the kraken. With his wife now dead, Perseus (Sam Worthington – Clash of the Titans, The Debt, Drift) has to bring up his son, Helius (John Bell – A Shine of Rainbows, Battleship, The Hobbit I-II), alone.

It is then that Zeus (Liam Neeson – Star Wars I, Clash of the Titans, The Dark Knight Rises), Perseus’s father, comes to Earth to warn his son that the gods need the help of the ‘half-gods’ to defeat the storm that is coming in the form of the vengeful titans. With treachery afoot in Tartarus, the underworld in which Hades (Ralph Fiennes – Clash of the Titans, Harry Potter VII(ii), Skyfall) is lord, it is only a matter of time before Cronus, the leader of the titans, unleashes his fury. Perseus will need the help of Hephaestus (Bill Nighy – Pirates of the Caribbean II-III, Harry Potter VII(i), I, Frankenstein), Queen Andromeda (Rosamund Pike – Die Another Day, An Education, Gone Girl) and her men, as well as the last of the gods and the ‘half-gods’ to defeat the evil that is to strike at ancient Greece.

Yes, the storyline is as ludicrous as that. When a film opens up with a narrator saying that the ancient world was ruled by “gods and monsters,” one has a fairly good idea that he/she is not going to be watching a classic, intellectually-stimulating film (to say the least).

Hades (Ralph Fiennes), the younger brother of Zeus and Lord of the Underworld, holding his pitch fork. Will he side with the evil titans?

Nonetheless, Wrath of the Titans is far from a hundred minutes of painful viewing. To make up for the plot’s (abundant) deficiencies, the film has many fighting scenes and a plethora of pretty good special effects to keep viewers entertained. The clockwork-like structure of the city of Tartarus has been put together exceptionally well, with much creativity and imagination. If there is one redeeming feature of the movie, it is Tartarus. (And it would have looked even better had the producers bothered to put some effort into the 3D.)

In addition, Wrath of the Titans is surprisingly accurate when it comes to informing its audience on certain aspects of ancient Greek mythology, such as how Hades became Lord of the Underworld; and who made his forked-pitch, as well as Zeus’ bolt and Poseidon’s triton.

However, the parts of the movie that have been done well are likely to be forgotten amidst the paucity of the rest of it. The music sounds like a contrived version of the uplifting score used in Transformers I-III. And if the music and the storyline aren’t bad enough, the acting and the dialogue are wooden and shallow. Sam Worthington, Rosamund Pike, Edgar Ramires (The Bourne Ultimatum, Carlos the Jackal, Zero Dark Thirty), playing Ares, and Toby Kebbell (Match Point, Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, The East), playing Agenor, are all seemingly unfit for their respective roles (and it’s not as if Worthington hasn’t played a hero before either).

Andromeda (Rosamund Pike) looking good as a warrior queen in boiled leather. Will her army rally to her cause to save ancient Greece from the destruction that will be unleashed with the wrath of the titans?

Moreover, one must wonder why Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes and, to some extent, Bill Nighy, who reprises his bizarre Scottish accent that he used in Pirates of the Caribbean II-III, would accept such roles. One almost doesn’t want to see them in these sorts of films as they can only humiliate themselves by doing so. (Seriously, do they need the money that much?)

All-in-all, Wrath of the Titans suffers from similar insufficiencies as Clash of the Titans. The film has a ludicrous storyline, a cast that plays poorly, and an appalling script. Nonetheless, Wrath of the Titans is quite entertaining and an upgrade on the first in the series. Not that that is saying much.

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Review – Coriolanus (15) [2012]

Star Rating: 4/5

<<guest review by KJF>>

William Shakespeare and the filmed medium have an uneasy relationship. Over the years many film-makers have attempted to bring his plays to the silver screen but not all have been successful, with some versions feeling staid and flat. For all the glories of Laurence Olivier’s trilogy of adaptations, in more recent years there have been Kenneth Branagh’s Love Labour’s Lost (2000) and As You like it (2006), which were both poorly received. Ralph’s Fiennes’ Coriolanus bucks the trend, providing an inventive, violent and gripping take on one of the Bard’s later tragedies.

Coriolanus, blood-soaked, in the heat of battle.

The original play is set in the ancient world, during one of the Roman Republic’s endless wars against a neighbouring tribe. Caius Martius (Ralph Fiennes – Schindler’s List, Harry Potter VII(ii), Wrath of the Titans), is Rome’s greatest general. Having just scored a bloody victory against the rebellious Volscians, he returns to his home city and is given the honorific name ‘Coriolanus’, in recognition of his battle prowess at the Volscian city of Corioles. At Rome the populace are starving due to a grain shortage. He tends to hold the people in contempt, and when his election to the consulship collapses, and he gets exiled, the disgruntled general defects to the Volcians and plots his revenge.

Here the story is updated to a modern Balkan setting which is very effective, recalling the wars in the 1990s following the collapse of Yugoslavia. The battles between Romans and Volscians are fought on bomb blasted streets, strewn with the wrecks of cars and buildings with terrified civilians being caught in the crossfire-scenes so reminiscent of modern urban warfare. The bleak, withered, Balkan landscape is a particularly effective back-drop to the bleakness of Coriolanus’ fate in the latter part of the film.

Fiennes in directing mode with Gerard Butler, playing Tullus Aufidius

All the events of the story are told through the prism of rolling news footage, with newscasters and pundits (naturally) spinning everything. (Even Jon Snow gets a look in!) When the grain protests in Rome are depicted, this allows for some fortuitous contemporary resonance as we cannot but think of the Arab Uprisings, particularly all the protesters massing on Tahrir Square. That all the political debating on show is done in the glare of television cameras instantly broadcasting into countless households feels particularly right. In Republican Rome, many political debates were held in public in the Forum.

Fiennes is following in the grand tradition of both Olivier and Branagh as both actor-director, and this is very much his film. The camera likes to linger on his battle-scarred, shaven, bullet-shaped head, which in the heat of battle gets spattered in blood. One needs no convincing that this is a serious warrior. When faced with dealing the people of Rome he so despises, his icy contempt for them is tangible. Fiennes is supported by a fine cast. Vanessa Redgrave (Mary, Queen of Scots, Letters to Juliet, Song For Marion) as Volumnia, Coriolanus’ formidable mother, is truly magnificent. She is a civilian but her martial bearing and control she exudes over her son is emphasised by the military dress she mostly wears. The seemingly ubiquitous Jessica Chastain (The Help, Take Shelter, Zero Dark Thirty) acquits herself admirably as the other woman in Coriolanus’ life, his doting wife, Virgilia. Gerard Butler (300, P.S. I Love You, London Has Fallen) plays a brooding Tullus Aufidius, the leader of the Volscians and nemesis of Coriolanus. There is, perhaps inescapably a touch of Leonidas about his performance but he very much proves the match and the mirror to the Roman general. The Roman politicos here are a conniving bunch, all decked out in slick, expensive suits and Brian Cox (Troy, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dog Fight) brings much style to his portrayal of the loquacious, fawning senator Menenius Agrippa, supporter of Coriolanus’ family.

Virgilia (Jessica Chastain) pleading with Coriolanus not to go back to war.

The faults with the film reflect back to the play itself. Coriolanus is the most unsympathetic of Shakespearean ‘heroes.’ He is no Hamlet or King Lear to draw much pathos. We rarely see behind his front of arrogance and hauteur and his loathing of people power, to what makes him a human being. The play itself can be heavy-going at points, punctuated with very long-winded speeches. Thankfully here, Fiennes in collaboration with his screenwriter, John Logan, has done some merciful pruning, to make everything more palatable.

Thus, Fiennes should be commended for bringing a less popular and less well-known Shakespearean play to a much wider audience. Indeed the vigour and imagination on display makes the film a rewarding and thought-provoking experience.

KJF

Review – Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows: Part I (12a) [2010]

Star Rating: 3/5

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh and final part of the Harry Potter series (albeit split into two films), was going to have to be a climactic masterpiece if it was to reach the unrealistic expectations of fans and critics alike. That it looked darker and more ominous than the previous six films merely added to the hype.

Film seven kicks off where the sixth film, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, left off. The time has come for Hogwarts’ prodigal apprentice, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe – Harry Potter I-VII(ii), The Woman In Black), to leave the comforts of his school. Now, he must find and vanquish the Hawcruxes, since this is the only way he will have a chance of defeating his eternal nemesis: the ever-more-powerful Dark Lord, Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes – Schindler’s List, The Reader, Harry Potter IV, V & VII(ii)). Joining Harry will be the young spell-mistress of her generation, Hermione Grainger (Emma Watson – Harry Potter I-VII(ii), My Week With Marilyn); and their goofy friend and below-average wizard, Ron Weasely (Rupert Grint – Harry Potter I-VII(ii)).

Against them stands an awesome array of Voldemort’s allies, including Belatrix (Helena Bonham Carter – Fight Club, Harry Potter V-VII(ii), The King’s Speech), the Death Eaters, Professor Snape (Alan Rickman – Die Hard, Harry Potter I-VII(ii), Alice in Wonderland), Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton – The Borrowers, Harry Potter I-VII(ii), Rise of the Planet of the Apes) and his father, Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs – The Patriot, Green Zone, Harry Potter II, IV, V, VII(ii)); not to mention countless others who are willing to assist the Dark Lord with his evil plans. Voldemort aside, these are the same villains who killed Albus Dumbledore, Harry’s master, in the previous film. Now, it is up to the precocious, but unready Harry to somehow deal with them as they relentlessly hound him.

Harry, Ron and Herminone working out where to next in their search for the Hawcruxes

How Harry and his friends were going to take on the villains was always going to be the key to the plot. But the plot is slow. At times, it is tedious to the point of disinteresting. (Unless, of course, you are a die-hard fan of which I am not.) Just like in the Half-Blood Prince, the director, David Yates (Harry Potter IIIVII(ii)), focuses more on the relationship between Harry, Hermione and Ron rather than the storyline. Again, the film is dominated by the ever-worsening sexual tension/frustration that the three main characters suffer. (One almost wants them to do it and get it over with just so the story can move on.)

But this is not the only thing that Harry, Hermione and Ron have to endure. They look lost away from their safe bubble-world of Hogwarts. Tiredness and helplessness is never far from their faces. But aside from this, the quality of the acting from the three main actors is, in general, far from great. Radcliffe and Grint remain more or less the same poor, two-dimensional characters they’ve always been. Emma Watson, at least, gives a slightly more mature performance than in previous films. She also has more of a leading role this time around; possibly even eclipsing Radcliffe. But apart from looking pretty, the role of Hermione still does not come overtly naturally to Watson. She tries too hard and takes herself too seriously.

Voldemort, the Dark Lord, unleashes some of his frightening dark powers. It is a pity that we see so little of him throughout the film.

In contrast, the villains do not take themselves seriously. For most other films, this would be a source of ridicule for the actors. However, Fiennes, Carter and Rickman skilfully pull off their roles. The great shame is how little they appear on-screen. This is a tragedy, since the Deathly Hallows should be about the villains as much as Harry. One even sees more of the Ministry of Magic, whose interior looks like a larger and more advance form of the Houses of Parliament (with a superficial Orwellian/1984 feel); and Lucius Malfoy’s mansion, which appears to be a real-life version of the enchanted castle in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, than the villains.

The choreography of these and other places, plus the special effects throughout the film are well done. Indeed, they are so good one could mistake the computer generated images (CGI) for being real. This is no mean feat for a fantasy film. Many films, and not just from this genre, fall at this hurdle.

The scenery throughout the movie is equally as impressive and well chosen; whether it is of a forest, a hill-top or an open plain. The landscape and weather always seem to fit in effortlessly with the mood of the scene. Yet, unlike for example in the Lord of the Rings, the landscapes and the choreography are not equalised in the Deathly Hallows by the quality of the acting or the grip of the plot. By the end, one only has a rough idea as to how the ‘Deathly Hallows’ is even relevant to the story.

However, despite these flaws, does Part I leave us wanting to see Part II? Without a doubt: yes. After-all, we have followed Harry for so long how could we possibly miss out on witnessing his duel of destiny with Voldemort?

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