Spectre (2015)

★★★★

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Spectre PosterDirector: Sam Mendes

Release Date: October 26th, 2015 (UK); November 6th, 2015 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Thriller

Starring: Daniel Craig, Léa Seydoux, Christoph Waltz, Ralph Fiennes

Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography was all the rage at the Oscars earlier this year, and Hoyte van Hoytema has tapped into the technical furore. Spectre begins with a Birdman-esque gallivant through a musty Mexican city, hollow drum beats slowly drowned out by the fluid orchestral waves of Monty Norman’s classic Bond theme as proceedings manoeuvre away from Day of the Dead festivities and towards 007’s (Daniel Craig) ensuing mission. Bond shoots at his target, Marco Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona), causing an enormous explosion that ought to terminate the wrongdoer. But just when you think it’s mission complete, Sciarra escapes. We momentarily meander back into the slow-moving parade before barrelling skywards aboard an out-of-control helicopter.

Director Sam Mendes is clearly having fun playing with our expectations, teasing tonally and pacing-wise. It is a super sequence in mechanical terms, but also a celebration of Bond: throughout the five-minute long take we see spying, shooting, surviving, and seducing. And, deviously, the film eliminates a would-be model Bond villain in record time — at one point the camera catches Sciarra looking like a cross between Jaws and Raoul Silva.

The main title montage then springs into life, this particular incarnation both encapsulating and artistically rich, affording meaning to Sam Smith’s otherwise uncertain lyrics. Perennial opening credits creator Daniel Kleinman delivers a montage that is all about retracing familiar steps, and Spectre does a lot of backwards walking. Bond, no longer in favour at a spatially revamped MI6, finds himself working outwith the espionage structure of government moderniser Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott), aided covertly by Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (Ben Wishaw).

The film is an entirely different prospect to Skyfall; this, in many ways, is Bond back to basics. Somewhat shunned by the morose undercurrent of its predecessor, Spectre revisits the franchise’s sly vein of humour. Ben Wishaw continues to grow into the role of Q, his pinpoint comedy timing affording the character greater charm. We dash all over the globe, though admirably the outing never succumbs to the artificial sheen of a travel brochure. Snowscapes make a comeback — there’s something to be said for beautiful blanket-white mountain locales and Bond often speaks fluently in this regard.

Just when you think the film won’t eclipse its previous action set piece, an even bigger and better one explodes on screen. Heck, we even get a hulking villain in Hinx, the bruiser given personality by Dave Bautista whose terminally arrogant-cum-ominous grin suggests total control. He brawls with Bond aboard a train in a punch-up that looks and sounds brutal — words such as vigour and pulp spring to mind as you begin to think Hinx might actually be a Terminator.

Some shots could have easily been borrowed from a Sergio Leone western, prompting quite the departure from what is otherwise a modern espionage jaunt. These pit Bond as the ageing gunslinger, a field agent feeling the brunt of a very real existential crisis provoked by Denbigh’s mechanical tactics, but also an operative who is still able to get the job done. Taunted by Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz) who, like Denbigh, is also plugged into the new world, Bond must confront the ghosts of his past in order to remain operationally relevant.

See, while reviving the franchise’s historical spirit, Spectre also roots itself in present day amenities. Denbigh is the corporate stooge infecting our treasured institutions, the guy who wants to take MI6 “out of the Dark Ages”. He heads up the Centre for National Security, or “George Orwell’s worst nightmare,” as M (Ralph Fiennes) puts it, a base designed to undemocratically scrutinise the globe. His vision is all-encompassing, a desk-based surveillance system that identifies and eliminates potential targets. Keyword: potential.

As Bond battles enemies in the field, seeing Fiennes and Scott engage in a dual over career politics is a warranted change of pace and one that never ceases to intrigue. A paranoid air arises based on the premise that any misstep might be critical, and this trope no longer only applies to Bond. The argument relayed by the old guard, essentially, is that espionage is too cloudy to be conducted in an impersonal manner.

This clash between old and new also incorporates Waltz’s Oberhauser, though the less said about him the better. He struts on screen encased in a cloud of shadow, Hoytema’s cinematography imbuing the character with immense mystique. We know exactly what Christoph Waltz looks like and yet we can’t help but wonder what sits beneath the darkness. Interactions between Oberhauser and Bond are few and far between and you do find yourself yearning for more, but perhaps the restraint employed by Mendes and his team of writers (John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Jez Butterworth all contribute) is what funds the tantalising energy surrounding both men.

Romantic (or unromantic) strands are still odd and awkward to sit through, especially in 2015. Bond’s infallibility when it comes to courting women remains a key characteristic that is tough to get along with, though his relationship with Lea Séydoux’s Madeleine Swan is at least sort of understandable — Madeleine is, after all, the daughter of spy. His fleeting flirtation with Monica Bellucci, playing a grieving widow, isn’t quite as logical.

A word finally on Daniel Craig, who looks like he is once again enjoying himself after the stunning solemnity of Skyfall. Spectre may or may not be his last tux session. Either way there is no denying the actor’s quite remarkable achievement since donning the attire in Casino Royale: imperfectly humanising a foolproof iron man. I’m not so convinced viewers these days aspire to live the life of Bond, and that is a good thing.

Spectre - Daniel Craig

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures, Columbia Pictures

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

★★★

TGBH PosterDirector: Wes Anderson

Release Date: March 7th, 2014 (UK); March 28th, 2014 (US)

Genre: Adventure; Comedy; Drama

Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori

It goes without saying that Wes Anderson rustles up his films to appease a desired taste and The Grand Budapest Hotel, despite its universal recognition on the awards circuit, is another fine delicacy. That’s not a bad thing, especially if you’ve previously been a fan of Anderson’s work. Cards on the table: I haven’t seen enough to really form a stalwart opinion on the director. Moonrise Kingdom was a charm-fest and although The Grand Budapest Hotel doesn’t quite match up for my inexperienced liking, it is still a fun one hundred minutes.

This is the story of a much admired hotel concierge and his invaluable lobby boy. Not for the first time we watch a Wes Anderson flick that is tremendously well crafted, with everyone from prolific cinematographer Robert Yeoman to those in the costume department really pulling up trees to make the outing a visual feast for the audience. It rattles on without so much as a chink, fluent and meticulous in full flow. Walls are painted the right shade of blonde or pink to suit the mood at any given moment, and we watch the madness unfold as if perched on a stand measured to a ninety degree angle with the utmost precision (at one point a character fixes a lopsided painting to maintain this custom).

The piece is a real gem to look at — you could easily spend the entire run-time focused on how minor details play out in the background without as much as a glance towards the immediate plot and still be pretty satisfied. Different aspect ratios are employed at different points in the film, from the older traditional 4:3 to current traditional 1.85:1. It’s fairly enjoyable watching hotel concierge Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) and his young partner in crime Zero (Tony Revolori) scamper around, but the purpose of the varying ratios gets somewhat lost as time passes.

There is an almost slapstick element to the film, one that totally suits its colourful, comic-ey surroundings. Every movement is overly emphasised, from running with knees aloft to plate-setting. The characters are all sky high on the eccentric scale — Tilda Swinton appears as an elderly lover and we even get Harvey Keitel in especially nutty convict form. The sheer volume of famous faces that show up, many of whom only appear for a scene or two, is a testament to Anderson’s strongly regarded reputation around acting circles, as well as the jovial atmosphere apparently present on set. This star-studded Hollywood collective helps fund a comedic tone — funniest when it breaks the mould with common insults (“that little prick!”; “who’s got the throat-slitter?”) as opposed to long-winded monologues, some of which can be a tad egregious.

And The Grand Budapest Hotel can be difficult to get into, simply because the screenplay’s ferocious nature doesn’t offer as much as a breather for the audience to adjust and then readjust. It might be a personal thing, in fact it almost certainly is, but the constant velocity can be off-putting (despite it enabling much of the sharp humour). As a viewer, you’re either strapped in and along for the ride or still weighing up the height of the roller coaster. For me it’s a bit too tall.

Much of the film’s allure emanates from the charismatic Gustave, played brilliantly by Fiennes. Fairly short of previous comedy chops — he was part of In Bruges, though his performance in the Martin McDonagh piece was far darker — Fiennes is quite the surprise here. He gets the funniest gags (“you know the drill then? Zip it”) and the actor plays the popular Gustave with an amusing air of receptive non-discrimination; he engages with everyone equally, from jail mates to lobby boys to militant inspectors.

Tony Revolori is a fine assistant to Fiennes on screen, and the two strike up quite the odd chemistry. Members of Anderson’s large cast move in and out of shot as if through a revolving door — Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Saoirse Ronan, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Léa Seydoux all show face, to name but a few. The film isn’t as fun when we’re not watching Gustave and Zero in tandem, but thankfully they’re together for most of the piece.

The question remains: is there anything going on beneath the surface, or is it all just that — surface? The director doesn’t appear too fussed about incorporating deep meaning and there is nothing necessarily wrong with that. He is more than an aesthetic filmmaker, as evidenced by the humour on show here, but his approach does to an extent alienate those without wholesome affection for it. There isn’t really a plot, rather a whole host of five minute segments incorporating many different Hollywood stars.

As such The Grand Budapest Hotel is an enjoyable spectacle, rampantly good fun on occasion, but not much more than that.

TGBH - Fiennes and Revolori

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Fox Searchlight Pictures

Midnight in Paris (2011)

★★★

Director: Woody Allen

Release Date: June 10th, 2011 (US); October 7th, 2011 (UK)

Genre: Comedy; Fantasy; Romance

Starring: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard

As images of modern Paris caressed by romanticising tones that blare heartily from a trumpet fade in and out of vision, we are made aware of perceived idealism and hereditary sentiment. The French capital has forever been associated with society’s most esteemed virtues; desires of art and literature and fashion and love, a variety of tropes that amalgamate together as one in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. You may find yourself all at sea, or at least caught by the tide as events unfold on screen if, like myself, you’re not a quintessential artiste, or a fashionista, or a literary encyclopaedia. Perhaps some form of salvage anchor exists for those who have experienced the aura of Paris. For this artless dodger though, Allen’s highly nuanced nostalgic whim certainly paints a beautiful picture, but ultimately fails to connect.

For Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), achieving success as a Hollywood screenwriter isn’t enough. He wishes to expand his artistic portfolio by penning a novel, but is unfortunately struggling to gather any inspiration. That’s where a wander to Paris offers respite, therefore off the back of a vacation funded by his wife Inez’s (Rachel McAdams) parents, Gil sees hope. Only, hope isn’t all he sees. Having escaped both the drones of an obnoxious family friend and his other half’s party manifesto, Gil finds himself slap-bang amongst the dazzling costumes and enigmatic personalities of an era he vociferously admires, the 1920s. It could be the wine, or perhaps Gil’s quest for inspiration has genuinely uncovered the Lost Generation.

Illuminated by quarantined nostalgia, Midnight in Paris firmly sinks its reels into a refined foundation. Gil champions the past, whereas others are either sceptical over his ambition or simply put-off by his tendency to reminisce. He lusts over the 1920s, wishing nature had granted him a spot at the dinner table of said time period. The main character in Gil’s novel works in a “nostalgia shop,” essentially reflecting the writer’s non-peripheral outlook on life. For 15 minutes, the presentation of a man who seemingly has everything going his way — affluence, a beautiful wife and a prosperous career — but remains unable to shake the cobwebs of a non-romantic reality, carries some weight.

Unfortunately the narrative somewhat spontaneously retreats a century backwards and kick-starts a conveyor belt of the intellectual. We meet Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, Dalí and a whole host of other scholars, artists, and fanciful knick-knacks. As Gil interacts with his heroes the problem is never clearer: these people are his heroes, not the audience’s — that would be to assume all Woody Allen outings are observed by a precise denomination, a notion that’s simply untrue given Midnight in Paris made over $150 million at the box office. Traits that may be recognised by artistically knowledgeably viewers otherwise play unsuccessfully to puzzled minds. Perhaps this is not a fault on the filmmaker’s end and an issue that instead lies squarely with those, like myself, who are less well-versed in the lives of Hemingway and company. Not every film is shot through a universal lens. Sadly for us common folk, much of Midnight in Paris renders superfluous as more vague faces appear spouting diatribes that are relayed with concealed significance. The phrase “we should quit the idle chatter” reverberates without implementation.

Allen formulates a familiar whimsical tone that brims full of quirkiness. Abiding by this eccentric slant on proceedings, the highbrow collection of 1920s (and earlier) historical figures are all portrayed without too much sincerity. The actors take to the screen like a hungry herd of cattle, displaying enough scenery chewing to clear any field of its green sheen. Everyone seems to be having a blast and although the various classical persons fluctuate in terms of how decipherable they are, an infectious joviality often washes over proceedings. Tom Hiddleston couples with Alison Phil as F. Scott Fitzgerald and wife Zelda respectively, and both are undoubtedly enjoying playing dress-up; Phil in particular accentuates those vowels. Kathy Bates shows up as Gertrude Stein, delighting as ever on cue. Adrien Brody hams it up more than any other as Salvador Dalí in a truly humorous display that overrules any notion of personal ignorance.

The film plays up the juxtaposition of modern American consumerist Paris versus romantic Renaissance-laden Paris, a contradiction embodied emphatically by Gil and his wife Inez. Owen Wilson is very good as the inspiration deprived writer turned wide-eyed child in a candy store, whose dream to live in Paris is far from the mind of Rachel McAdams’ Inez. Inez is the typical tourist who sees Paris merely in its present day form as a temporary drop-out zone, and not for its natural inbuilt beauty — unlike her husband, she hates how the city looks in the rain. McAdams is fine in her role too, but struggles for breath at times given the nature of her one-dimensional character. The pair’s relationship is never really believable, a sentiment raised by Marion Cotillard’s Adriana in between escapades of Basil Exposition (“I dropped in from 2010″… “You DID?!”).

Shot by cinematographer Darius Khondji, the film basks in a wonderfully rich texture that is quite the opposite of the quaint plot which invariably ducks and dives. Too many on screen presences mean a few are lost in the shuffle; antiques dealer Gabrielle feels like a character without conviction, and Inez’s mother, other than manifesting as a dead ringer for Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine a decade on, has very little to do. After traipsing through party after party full of observant pundits you begin to wonder why nobody is picking up on Gil’s 21st century fashion sense.

Midnight in Paris’ admirable intentions are there for all to see, but perhaps only a few will fully comprehend. That is not to say the film is lacking in watchability, for a host of energetic performances alongside a narrative that accommodates more than a trace of intrigue through its humorous comparison in culture certainly offers delight in small doses.

Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013)

★★★★★

Director: Abdellatif Kechiche

Release Date: October 25th, 2013 (US limited); November 22nd, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Drama; Romance

Starring: Adèle Exarchopoulos, Léa Seydoux

Adèle ambles hurriedly along a busy high street. The sun gleams on her fidgety demeanour as the apprehensive student makes her way to meet up with a guy. They don’t have much in common, if anything at all, but he appears nice enough. Do you believe it? Not really. As she crosses the road, Adèle’s anxious glance catches a calmer, more assured one. We don’t know it yet, but the recipient is Emma and the pair seem to share an instant, intriguing connection. Do you believe that? Absolutely.

Blue is the Warmest Colour has been shrouded in controversy since release, partly brought on by a selective reaction to certain scenes, and partly accentuated in a row between director and actor in regards to their working environment. Forget all that for a moment. Not because those concerns are invalid, rather it seems unfair that a film so honest and captivating should be tainted in any way. Regardless of any hostility, actors Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux are utterly entrancing in director Abdellatif Kechiche’s simple story that flourishes in its beautiful depiction of love, maturity, desire and emotion.

In her late-teens, Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) is someone who looks and acts uninspired. She drifts through classes at school, ones she possesses a passion for but can’t get into because the teacher isn’t right. Even hanging out with friends is awkward and confused. When it doesn’t work out with a boyfriend, her love for food leads to a comfort eating embrace. It’s at a crossroads in her life, literally and metaphorically, when sparks begin to ignite. As Emma (Léa Seydoux), blue hair and all, glimpses wonderingly back towards Adèle — sun prodding the direction of her vision — the film’s engines begin to rev. With the exception of one or two charming exchanges, all that preceded becomes inconsequential. Adèle rhymes, “No words? No melody? It’s not my thing.” Well the melody has just kicked in.

One of the prevailing successes of Blue is the Warmest Colour is how unassuming it is. Indeed, we want to know more about Adèle and Emma’s relationship, but the film never becomes abrasive towards its characters and scenes are allowed to play out fully and eloquently. Of course in doing so the three-hour runtime becomes essential rather than optional. Normally I’d groan at anything north of two hours, and in all honesty the prospect of watching this felt tiresome. However: the fluid nature of the dialogue; the immersive delivery from both Adèle and Léa; the contrasting elements of each character; the way that the cinematography ensures a sense of immediacy — much in the same vein as Drake Doremus’ Like Crazy does — all combines to shun that three-hour hurdle into non-existence. You could spend a lot longer with these people and not become bored.

And it is all about the people. Adèle delves in literature, delighting in French and English and adores children as much as she detests shellfish and strawberry milkshakes. On the other hand, Emma carries a greater intellectual air about her, studying Fine Arts as a student (she’s a little older than Adèle) and mingling with similarly cultivated friends. In fact, the film in general has a European art-house underbelly going on: there’s street music with odd instruments; rallies supporting sexuality and protests over cuts; philosophical discussions entailing Picasso. Yet it still maintains a breath of commonality. You don’t mind the artsiness because it’s their artsiness, and its appeal actually starts to beckon after a short time. Having said that, the film does slightly teeter on the edge when it’s not Adèle and Emma swapping these conversations — they’re sometimes replaced by other characters who we don’t know well enough and as a result come across a tad overbearingly.

Inevitably the discussion over how necessary the extended scenes of intimacy between Adèle and Emma will arise. One sequence, which clocks in at around eight minutes, is far too long. Is it controversial? Maybe. But from a viewing perspective, its innate longevity actually removes the viewer from the genuine, heartfelt love-story which both pre and succeeds it. Thereafter said scenes are shorter, but probably still linger unnecessarily. It’s a shame because the film is so much better than some of the backlash those eleven or 12 minutes have generated, made even more annoying as the source of much of the controversy isn’t really a narrative necessity anyway.

The film is speckled with truly emotional moments throughout: from an upset Adèle being exposed to uncertainty in the midst of her classroom, a place of refuge, to a tale of two family dinners, one outgoing and the other conservative. As their existence together progresses, jealousy sets in and differences clash: this notion of fulfilment in life takes hold as Emma encourages Adèle to enter the world of writing, whereas Adèle sees happiness in continuity. There’s an inherently tragic undertone at times, and in a way the narrative mirrors that of Romeo and Juliet — in a bar, their second meeting and first magnetic interaction shares a whole host of similarities with how Romeo and Juliet first encounter each another.

Both actors are phenomenal in their depictions. Adèle Exarchopoulos, a relative newcomer to French cinema, shines in particular as Adèle. It’d be a shame for her not to pick up an Oscar nomination because there’s nobody in the past year who has delivered a more eclectic performance, beginning succinctly before unravelling a diverse range of emotions along the way. Her on-screen partner, BAFTA Rising Star nominee Léa Seydoux — who you might have seen in Inglorious Basterds or Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol recently — is also tremendous in her occasionally mysterious and always binding portrayal, as her character often acts as the anchor for Adèle’s insecurities.

Sometimes words aren’t enough, not unless they’re being exchanged between Adèle and Emma. It’s not an entirely groundbreaking narrative drama, but it is honestly and wonderfully executed. Blue most certainly is the warmest colour, however, if there’s any justice in the world, this film’s future will rain Academy gold.