Review: Spectre (2015)

Director: Sam Mendes

**

This review was originally published on Scannain.com

 ‘The dead are alive.’ Thus reads the first title card that pops onscreen in Spectre. James Bond may not be a zombie, but the 007 franchise takes delirious pleasure in cannibalizing itself, forever loading each new installment with jokes and nods to films past. Skyfall kept in-jokes to a sarky minimum and upped the personal stakes. This approach earned it a billion dollars and two Oscars. Spectre takes precisely the opposite approach: it ties itself to Bond lore so tightly that it cuts off its own air supply. Skyfall was smart yet nimble fun, but the past is too great a burden for Spectre to bear. Even with director Sam Mendes back on board, it doesn’t have to be as good as Skyfall; it just has to be good. The opening scene bodes well; starting with a lithe tracking shot, Bond attempts to take out an Italian assassin during the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico City. Things go awry, and the scene builds in tension as a helicopter gets involved. Between the eerie skeleton imagery and top-notch stuntwork, it’s a thrilling setpiece, and the finest opening to a Bond since Casino Royale. So far, so good.

Then, Sam Smith’s forgettable whine of a song kicks in. This high-pitched dirge accompanies Daniel Kleinman’s typically-stylish credit sequence. Spectre’s octopus symbolism is referenced throughout the sequence, though it means some shots feel more like they belong in Zulawski’s Possession. Once Smith shuts up, we’re back in London to find Bond being reprimanded for his rogue Mexican antics by M (Ralph Fiennes). He’s understandably vexed. Bond’s latest antics might be the last nail in the coffin for the 00 unit, as new Defence Ministry bigwig Denbigh, codename C (Andrew Scott, ditching charm for smarm) seeks to shut them down in favour of a world-spanning surveillance program. Didn’t we have a similar 00-killing dilemma in Skyfall? Spectre is needily indebted to its immediate predecessors. The returning scriptwriting team of Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan are joined by Jez Butterworth (Edge of Tomorrow, Black Mass) to create a story that tries to balance the leaner, more modern elements of Bond that Skyfall perfected with plots and traits of older Bonds. Yes, the traditional gunbarrel sequence returns to the start of the film, but the nods in the action and plot beats to the whole canon, from The World Is Not Enough to From Russia With Love, are too uneven to allow Spectre to leave its own mark.

On instructions left for him by previous M Judi Dench (Because, y’know, the past), Bond follows a trail from the assassin’s funeral to his widow (Monica Bellucci, doing a lot with not near enough screentime) to a secretive organisation having a whispery board meeting in central Rome. The evil organisation SPECTRE hasn’t appeared in a Bond film since 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever, largely due to rights issues. Mendes and the script see no need to mould the idea of SPECTRE to fit into a world that has changed so much in 44 years. Here’s a top-secret organisation that can somehow get away with crater bases and high-level meetings in the middle of big cities. Yet, the screenwriters think it’s a gambit so worthwhile that it ties the antagonists of the previous three films into SPECTRE’s web. Its leader Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz, exhibiting little of the relish that made Hans Landa so memorable) is a throwback to other OTT Bond megalomaniacs, but with little to define him besides a half-baked backstory that might just have audiences slapping their foreheads. Spectre is so concerned with looking back into the past that it can’t see the stumbling blocks ahead of it.

Following a quick escape from Rome, Bond hops to Austria to meet with Casino Royale’s Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), who directs him to to our Bond girl for the evening, Léa Seydoux’s Madeleine Swann; try as that name might, the only thing Spectre has in common with In Search of Lost Time is its bum-numbing length. Realistically, this location just allows for some snowy action to recall On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Spectre lollops along for over an hour at a steady, yet uninspired pace. We get basic introductions to SPECTRE, Oberhauser and our old-school henchman Hinx (Dave Bautista, menacing but sadly silent), but no overawing sense of threat. To invoke another unfavourable comparison to Skyfall, Javier Bardem’s Silva was so menacing because he had a clear agenda and target. In an age where cyber-terrorism is the threat of the day, fights with burly henchmen fall somewhere between quaint and anachronistic. The Denbigh plot taps into issues of covert surveillance versus personal freedoms, but it jostles for attention with Bond’s globe-hopping in a film that’s sorely overlong (148 minutes), yet never allows its characters time to develop. By the time the pace grinds to a halt with a prolonged trip to Morocco, it becomes clear that Skyfall spoiled us.

From the Proust referencing to a continuous mirror motif, there are hints that Spectre is trying to earn bonus points for extra knowledge on its exam paper. These efforts are all for naught when the old school necessities of SPECTRE, far-flung locales and Bond girls needing rescue get in the way. There are plenty of iconography-baiting moments for Bond fans to chew over, but it also means Spectre will be as inaccessible to Bond noobs as Skyfall was fun for all. Enjoying himself least of all is Craig, who looks less at ease as Bond here than in his previous outings; perhaps he really means it when he says he’s done with this role. Seydoux beings more energy to her role, even if Swann is there just to impart information and be rescued. The MI6 bods fare best here. Ben Whishaw’s Q steals every scene he’s in with a quiet smirk and gentle humour, while Naomie Harris is a sparky-if-underused Moneypenny. Meanwhile, Fiennes continues his habit of simultaneously having fun and being terrific. His M is as tough as Judi Dench’s, but he also has a headmasterly quality that makes him both a valuable ally and a keen sparring partner for Bond. On this evidence, an M prequel might be more interesting than James Bond’s return.

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Review: Cloud Atlas (2012)

Directors: Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski

**

This review originally appeared on Ramp.ie

Oh, Cloud Atlas. Where does one even begin?

We could begin at the beginning, with David Mitchell’s 2004 novel. A prominent bestseller and book club favourite, it weaves several disparate stories, separated by centuries and geography, into a lesson on the repetition inherent in human experience. It earned praise, massive sales and the inevitable ‘unfilmable’ tag. The Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer’s adaptation has finally arrived, having already bombed at the US box office, and one can see why many critics thought the novel was best left unfilmed. It’s a sprawling mess of a film, with storylines struggling against each other for notice. That said, it’s a beautiful and assured mess, which must surely count for something in our age of mass-produced filmic rubbish. Right? Right?!

Cloud Atlas begins at the end, with an aged Tom Hanks by a wood fire underneath the stars waxing lyrical on human connectedness. From this humble start/finish, we jump back into six story strands, connected by various characters, themes and sometimes the most tenuous of links. The most obvious connection in all of these stories is the recurrence of several actors. Take Hanks as an example. Across the six stories, Hanks is a ship’s doctor (in the year 1849), a crummy hotel receptionist (in 1936), a nuclear physicist (1973), an Irish gangster-turned-author (present day), an actor in a film (2144) and a hunter-gatherer resident of post-apocalyptic Earth. In some of the roles, Hanks gets a raw deal in the make-up department, but other actors in other stories are nigh-on unrecognizable. This gambit clearly reflects the idea of reoccurrence and connections, but the novelty of the gimmick mutes its effectiveness. Actors change genders and races with amazing frequency, but the varying quality in make-up and performances makes for an awkward watch. See Ben Whishaw play a oddly-pretty blonde woman! See Jim Sturgess play a Korean! Watch Korean actress Doona Bae play a white woman! If you’re not surrendering to the novelty, Cloud Atlas is an equal opportunities offender. And the less said about Hugo Weaving’s Nurse Ratched clone, the better.

The most effective stories are those depending least on the prosthetics. In 1936, Ben Whishaw’s Frobisher goes to work for acclaimed composer Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent) whilst composing his own masterpiece, the Cloud Atlas Sextet. Meanwhile, in 1973, Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) is investigating the motives behind the aggressive push for nuclear power being spearheaded by Lloyd Brooks (Hugh Grant).  Unfortunately, a hitman (Hugo Weaving) is on her tail. It helps that Frobisher’s lover Sixsmith (James D’Arcy) is Rey’s source on the nuclear generator story: in other words, a genuine connection. Most other inter-story connections feel weak. It’s a long and bumpy journey from an 1800s Pacific voyage to the final remnants of humanity three centuries from now. The through-line of Cloud Atlas is incredibly muddled but should reward repeat viewings, should one be so inclined.

The performances and the filmmaking skill in these tales is fine, but the plots themselves are basic at best. Stretching any of them to feature length would require a lot of beefing up of the script. Indeed, all these plotlines are defined by either being underwritten or being rehashes of other films. Take the story in 2144, set in a futuristic Seoul with clones working as slaves for a consumerist society. When one clone, Sonmi-451 (Bae, again) is inspired to escape servitude by rebel Hae-Joo (Sturgess, again), she is forced on the run and becomes an unlikely mascot for the rebellion against Big Brother. All this from the folks who directed The Matrix? It’s all very 1999. New Seoul looks dazzling, but then the plot beats creep in and a twist taken from another film will inspire more than a few eye rolls.

Every strand has something to both leave you agape and to leave you slapping your forehead. The latter is served mostly by the present-day story of publisher Timothy Cavendish (Broadbent, again), fleeing some Irish gangsters (including Hanks, whose Dublin accent is so bad it’s almost good) and getting unwittingly committed to an old folks’ home by his brother (Grant, again!). Evidently, the novel felt a need for levity and so did the script. On its own, it stirs a mild titter; next to the New Seoul storyline, it’s as tonally out-of-place as a clown at a wake. There’s a lot in Cloud Atlas that feels like it could have been chopped, but the Wachowskis and Tykwer keep as much as they can in place. You can hardly blame them; themes of connectedness and interchangeability are endlessly fascinating and relevant (Lana Wachowski, formerly Larry, is living proof of that). That said, there have to be more subtle ways of exploring these themes than having Halle Berry play a white Jewish woman or Hugh Grant play a cannibalistic tribe leader. All this is driven by wild ambition; the size and scope of Cloud Atlas must surely make it the most ambitious film in years. However, ambition on its own does not a fully-realized vision make.

The process of adapting novels into film should be a distillation of themes and plot into an accessible-yet-true take on the source. Cloud Atlas is accessible (Jumping between plots ensures you’re never bored), but the truth is hidden in prosthetics and happenstance. Cloud Atlas has inspired, and is going to inspire, fiery reactions from both lovers and haters. Then again, something that causes such opposing reactions must be doing something right.

Review: The Tempest (2010)

Director: Julie Taymor

**

The Tempest opens with an image of a tidy little sandcastle crumbling underneath a rainstorm. It’s an apt image, as The Tempest frequently threatens to crumble underneath director Julie Taymor’s overambition. Not even William Shakespeare’s beautiful prose can save it.

The castle is actually being held by Miranda (Felicity Jones), and the rain comes from the tempest being conjured by the mischevous spirit Ariel (an eerie Ben Whishaw), as ordered by Miranda’s sorceress mother Prospera (Helen Mirren). In the play (Shakespeare’s last, before his death in 1516), Prospera was Prospero, a man, but the gender change is justified by a fiery performance from Mirren. Prospera conjures the storm to sink a ship carrying some of the Milanese royalty that banished Prospera and Miranda to the island they call home. The Milanese, royalty and servants alike, are washed ashore separately. Miranda finds Prince Ferdinand (Reeve Carney) on one shore, and falls for him immediately. Jones is forgettable, but Carney is deathly dull, thus rendering their romance feeling more like Twilight than Romeo and Juliet. On another part of the island are found King Alonso (David Strathairn), Gonzalo (Tom Conti), Sebastian (Alan Cumming) and Antonio (Chris Cooper). All are great actors, so to see them forced to act off against each other with too little screentime is a great waste of their talent.

On another part of the island, servants Trinculo (Russell Brand) and Stephano (Alfred Molina) are washed up and encounter Prospera’s slave, the scarred and warped Calaban (Djimon Hounsou). Brand and Molina’s giddiness provide a much needed boot up the backside to the pace, which threatens to grind to a halt at times. Meanwhile, Hounsou gives the best performance of all the cast, a wonderful mix of spleen, naivete and outstanding make-up. The Tempest’s production design is immaculate to a fault. Sandy Powell’s Oscar-nominated costumes and Mark Friedburg’s sets are a little too polished, lending The Tempest a stagey, artificial look. Despite Stuart Dryburgh’s beautiful lensing and Elliot Goldenthal’s punk-like score, there’s little to dispel the idea that these are sets on a studio backlot.

Taymor’s script barely deviates from Shakespeare’s text, which makes the film feel all the more staged. Flashbacks and exposition are all well on stage, but film thrives on kinetic fizz. Whilst Taymor clearly relishes the freedom of the screen, her visual flourishes are so over the top that you find yourself wishing for something more tangible. Taymor’s adaptation of Titus was allowed to be OTT by virtue of being an OTT stageplay, but The Tempest demands a slightly more subtle touch. It’s both visceral and vacuous, neither straying from the text nor adding anything to it. The Tempest has too many well-placed elements to be an out-and-out bad film, but it’s definitely an underwhelming one.