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Skyfall – Bond’s mid-life crisis overcome

Bond at 50: Skyfalling in love all over again

Skyfall, the 23rd official James Bond film, is only the third in the series (after Tomorrow Never Dies and Die Another Day) to have a title with no connection to the life or works of Ian Fleming. It will surprise viewers therefore that a wholly original Bond movie could be so steeped in the mythos and lore of Agent 007, so much so that it seems implausible that Skyfall is not somehow the direct product of the mind of Fleming.

As much concerned with the nature of Bond (and MI6) as was 2006’s barnstorming reboot Casino Royale, which launched Daniel Craig in the role, Skyfall creates with that film a superb double act concerning the how and why of Bond, while it both paints over and makes up for the problems of Bond’s last outing, the entirely wretched Quantum of Solace.

Tearing the reins from Marc Forster, director of that runt of the Bond litter, is Sam Mendes, the deservedly acclaimed auteur behind American Beauty and Road to Perdition. A filmmaker experienced in tension and quick shoot-outs rather than all-out action sequences, Mendes has brought all his experience to Skyfall and made it very much his own Bond movie. Here he has upped the character drama at the expense of some of the more no-holds-barred action of previous Bond films, but it makes for a far more appealing film experience, if perhaps, for some, a less adrenaline-pumped spy adventure.

However, there’s no shortage of action in Skyfall’s opening sequence, as Bond (Craig) chases a target through the streets of Istanbul, speeds a motorbike across its rooftops (where so recently Liam Neeson was seen limping along in Taken 2), before a classic punch-up atop a hurtling train. It’s the film’s most thrilling sequence, but that is not to say the film peaks early, given the intrigue that comes later.

After an early setback, Bond returns to duty when a cyber-terrorist with vengeance in mind for MI6 boss M (Judi Dench) rears his head. Encouraged by a fearful M and watched with caution by Ralph Fiennes’s somewhat slimy government liaison, Bond heads into the field to track down his enemy in Asia. Halfway through proceedings the villain is revealed to be Raoul Silva, played by a positively flaming Javier Bardem, in a scene that makes the homoerotic torture sequence from Casino Royale look like two men drinking beer and talking about football. In classic Bond style, 007 must stop Silva from extracting his revenge, but there are plenty of unexpected twists along the way.

Gayvier Bardem as Silva

On his third outing as Bond, Craig continues to revel in the role (even in the turgid Quantum of Solace he excused himself well), hitting all the right notes, while still managing to carry the repressed psychological damage that made him so endearing in Casino Royale. Judi Dench, having the biggest part she’s had since The World Is Not Enough, finds something new in the role, a mournful weariness that belies her administrative efficiency.

The expanded role for M comes at the expense of the Bond girls; Casino’s strongest suit. Bérénice Marlohe’s Sévérine could slot into any Bond adventure, despite a weak attempt to give her a tragic backstory. As MI6 field operative Eve, Naomie Harris carries herself with confidence, but the awkward flirty banter between her and Bond is largely forced, and has no pay-off until quite late in the game.

The only Bond girl you’ll ever need

Bardem steals much of the film as Silva, one part Hannibal Lecter, the other part Buffalo Bill. A late appearance by the inimitable Albert Finney (Tom Jones, Big Fish) steals the rest of it, with Finney wielding both a shotgun and the film’s best one-liner.

As the new Q, Perfume star Ben Whishaw is passable, although the late Desmond Llewelyn’s snark is deeply missed. “You were expecting an exploding pen?” Q asks as he gives Bond some simpler, tamer gadgets. It’s hard not to feel Bond’s disappointment, especially given that the one gadget he is given has a very obvious use that plays out exactly as you imagine it will from the moment Bond receives it. Thinking back, was the invisible car all that bad?

Tech support: Ben Whishaw as Q

Despite a running time of 143 minutes, Skyfall never loses its momentum, taking long pauses from the action that are full of rich character development. The script by Bond reboot pairing Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, teamed with regular Martin Scorsese colleague John Logan, bristles with energy in its scenes and dialogue. Only the classic Bond one-liners suffer, with the film’s most unique kill followed by a line so mishandled it doesn’t even deserve a groan. But the drama unfolds so brilliantly that such missteps soon fade from memory, and the film builds towards a climax more about Bond himself than any that has come before. The third act revelation of the meaning of “Skyfall” is perhaps the most exciting surprise in a Bond film since Rosa Klebb revealed a knife in her shoe.

There are plenty of references throughout Skyfall to classic Bond titles, while Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace are only alluded to in Bond’s continued drinking of his Vesper cocktails, rather than his traditional vodka martinis. If it weren’t for that, we could almost forget Quantum of Solace ever happened. A charming reference to the events of Goldfinger does become problematic, as the question arises as to whether Craig’s Bond is somehow the same un-ageing character who battled SPECTRE in the 1960s. It doesn’t distract from the film, but it will become a major talking point amongst Bond fans in bars and internet chatrooms everywhere.

Shot in rich colours by the Coen brothers’ regular cinematographer Roger Deakins, Skyfall looks better than any Bond film to date. Eschewing the frenetic Bourne-esque cutting of the two previous films, Skyfall is clear and bright throughout. One fierce, rapid, hand-to-hand scuffle between Bond and an assassin is shot from a withdrawn distance with the two characters in silhouette, backlit by an enormous video screen pulsating with colour. It conjures the opening credit sequences of Bond films while also showing off the filmmakers’ flair and originality within a franchise that many would accuse of having run out of ideas.

From Craig’s initial strut into focus, through Adele’s soulful title track right up to the film’s thrilling finale, Skyfall proves itself to be one of the finest films the franchise has seen. A fitting entry on the 50th anniversary of the release of Dr. No, Skyfall does not beg a sequel, but its last scene will have fans sweating for one.

4/5

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Further Festival Frolics

So the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival has been over a week now but it’s worth recapping what I saw in the days following my marathon Sunday viewing.

On the Tuesday of the Festival I caught the entertaining oddity Were the World Mine. A camp indulging in gay teen wish fulfilment, the film combines traditional teen angst drama with musical fantasy to create a bizarre yet recognisable fusion.

Loosely autobiographical, according to director Tom Gustafson, the story follows a troubled gay teen dealing with his attractions at an all-boys school in a somewhat conservative American town.

First escaping into daydreams about his rugby star crush – the film’s portrayal of a daydreaming adolescent is commendable – framed in the context of a school performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the film takes an interesting and utterly unexpected turn when the youth, Timothy, successfully fabricates the love potion from that play, and uses it to help the world see through his eyes, by literally making the whole town gay.

It’s a little juvenile, but it’ all performed with a nod and a wink, and it pretty much works fine as an indie comedy. Whether it truly has anything to say about gender relations and sexuality is debatable, but through the use of dance and music, all lyrics by Bill Shakespeare, it certainly sets itself apart from any similar films.

Certainly it’s the freshest the love potion film has seemed in decades.

Right after that, though thankfully in the same cinema, was a gala presentation of the sensational Il Divo. A political biopic like none I have ever seen, the latter days of the rule of Giulio Andreotti are played out in manner that could be called part drama, part gangster movie, part music video.

Indeed, the impressive young director Paolo Sorrentino said in discussion after the film that his intention had been to create a “rock opera” about Andreotti, and it very much comes off that way.

Surreal flourishes permeate the otherwise sensible walls of power in Rome: a cat with David Bowie eyes engages Andreotti in a staring contest; blood red subtitles introducing characters shift within the frame to contest with camera movements; even the music from the soundtrack is utterly eccentric.

As Andreotti, Tony Servillo creates a caricature that feels too strange to not be real. There is an inhumanity to him, as he rings his hands, hunched like Count Orlok, and yet when we see his relationship with his wife, and when we see the pressure that is on him and the sleeplessness power creates for him, we realise that it is far more than a caricature that is on display here.

In perhaps the film’s most startling image (and there are several in contention), Andreotti walks off his sleeplessness up and down a corridor for what feels like minutes on end, the camera swinging to keep up with movement as he darts in and out of focus. There is a potential master behind this camera, but like many of the masters he is clearly really having fun.

A complete antithesis to the realism of Italy’s other Cannes success last year, Gomorrah, Il Divo similarly asks questions without answers and leaves an incredible amount of ambiguity, while pointing towards Andreotti’s guilt.

It’s a bizarre experience, but one that you can’t shake off afterwards as you still picture Andreotti shuffling along the midnight streets of Rome with an armed cavalcade of police at his side.

The next evening was the Irish premiere of Religulous, another feature long out in the US, which I had been waiting for for some time. I’ve never made much secret of my staunch atheism so this was always going to be a case of preaching to the choir (if you’ll forgive that specious turn of phrase in this instance).

I’d be lying so if I did not admit I was slightly disappointed. The film took what I consider to be too flippant an approach in its observances of the faults in adhering to outdated religious doctrines. To finally turn around as Bill Maher does in the final reel and put forth what amounts to a call to arms for atheists and agnostics is quite a step that one feels a whole TV series would have required rather than 100 minutes of witty analysis.

In fairness, as comedy goes, making fun of religion is like shooting Jesus fish in a barrel.

But that’s not to say it isn’t funny, it has some great moments, mostly supplied by witty subtitles and bizarre interviewees. The discussion with an eccentric priest outside the Vatican contains many of the highlights, as does the interview with an Arkansas senator.

But good fun and occasional insights do not make it the must-see event it really should have been.

The surface has been scratched, but who will start hacking away now that Bill Maher and Larry Charles have retreated?

An exhausting dash from Cineworld to the Screen (again) made me very on time for a delayed screening of Tokyo!, coupled with Il Divo my highlight of he Festival.

This three-pronged assault on logic through surrealism and whimsy is one of the best collections of short films I have ever come across.

The first film, Interior Design, has left me forgiving the bitter taste Michel Gondry left in my mouth with the dire Be Kind Rewind. It is an expertly crafted story that begins as a generic but pleasant “country girl in the big city” story before mutating into a Kafkaesque nightmare with a happy ending.

The story of Hiroko’s (Ayako Fujitani) struggle to feel useful and her despair in realising the truth about herself is captured wonderfully through the film’s pacing and Fujitami’s introverted performance. When all surrealist hell breaks loose, Gondry uses his trademark “wait, how did he do that?” special effects so brilliantly that it sweeps you up and takes you away with it. The ending hovers in a void between meaningless and insightful that all you can do is smile.

Merde is the weakest of the three vignettes, but that is hardly a criticism. Directed by little-known French filmmaker Leos Carax, it tells the story of a horrible French troll (Denis Lavant) who lives beneath Tokyo, venturing forth only to terrorise through sheer unpleasantness.

The first elongated take following Merde along his path of terror, on what feels like a never-ending or endlessly repeating shopping street – stealing money (to eat) and licking helpless passersby.

When eventually captured and put on trial, his lawyer appears to also be a similar troll creature, albeit one who has become a respected member of French society. Pythonesque comedy ensues as the two communicate through gibberish; it nearly gets old but always remains funny, even through the lengthy courtroom scene, which is kept fresh by the use of – for no discernable reason – 24-style split screens.

It’s all very silly but very fun, with brilliant fake news coverage adding to the nonsense. The final gag is truly inspired, although one fears Carax could follow up on the offer it contains.

Finally, Shaking Tokyo is Tokyo!’s triumph. From Bong Joon-ho, the Korean genius behind the genre-bending The Host, it tells the story of a hikikomori, a sort of homebound hermit, who only orders in food and refuses to make eye contact with visitors, and designs his dwelling with used-up toilet rolls and empty pizza boxes.

After a chance encounter with a beautiful woman and a subsequent earthquake, the nameless shut-in begins to rethink his life, and the story ventures from comedy into the worlds of romance and science fiction.

It is an utter delight with more than enough quirky gags to keep it constantly fresh, as well as one of the most charming voiceovers in recent memory.

On Thursday night I took a friend to see Two For the Road, playing as one of the many classic films on show. As an extra treat it was on at the Lighthouse cinema, which I had not been to since its reopening last year. It must be the comfiest and most aesthetically pleasing cinema in Dublin.

The film was more of a treat than I expected, detailing the romantic ups and downs of an English couple over 12 years as their various holidays in France criss-cross one another in time.

The back-and-forthing feels remarkably novel for 1967, it’s the sort of stylistic device we like to think belongs solely to the likes of Christopher Nolan. But really this is all about the magnificent script (by Frederic Raphael) and the impressive chemistry between Albert Finney (utterly charming) and Audrey Hepburn (who goes from pretty pixie to bitchy madam).

Some of the sequences work better than others. The youngest pairing are so full of promise (that we see simultaneously blighted) that it’s hard not to love them, and their dialogue is so laced with double entendre that it is always hysterical. Another pairing sees them travelling with an infuriating American couple, who you wish to both laugh and strangle they are so totally true-to-life.

But the eldest, successful and bitter sequences are so nasty, and Hepburn’s outfits so gruesomely over the top, that they never quite work properly. Especially toward the end, where the film loses its sense of rhythm and extends each scene needlessly, that by the finale you feel utterly exhausted.

It is still a film years ahead of its time however.

So after what felt like an almost faultless run at the Film Festival I took my chance on an Irish film for my last night, the Saturday, when the director of Song For a Raggy Boy, Aisling Walsh, presented her new film, The Daisy Chain.

A horror (sort of), in the vein of Rosemary’s Baby, the film defiantly chose not to work.

Beginning promisingly with the journey of a young couple, played by the usually reliable Samantha Morton and Steven Mackintosh, to his former home in Co. Mayo as they expect their second child, following the death of their firstborn, the film quickly misses its footing with an overindulgence in twee Oirishness and hammy acting.

A local girl, Daisy, whose face is inexplicably always dirty, is cruel and odd, though friendly towards Martha (Morton).

When her entire family ends up dead, no one suspects a thing and the newcomers to town take her in. Despite her being really creepy.

Suddenly people start to whisper that she might not be human, and might actually be a “fairy changeling” (watch in horror as the cast clearly hold back giggles while saying those words – you might not be so lucky).

The defence comes from Martha that she is probably autistic, but that just raises further questions as to why on earth this couple are left looking after her.

There are a few good sequences: Daisy – who, played by newcomer Mhairi Anderson, is genuinely impressive in her creepiness – nearly pushes some local children off a cliff as she violently demands they “Play with me!”; a crazed local attempts to do away with the girl in a rather fiendish Wile E Coyote-style pit trap, but even that whole scene is spoiled by a slow motion shot that looks as if it was created with the free software that comes with a new MacBook.

The film is riddled with errors. Continuity errors, editing mishaps, hapless dialogue. When Daisy’s parents die, a garda says that the locals wouldn’t be so scared if it hadn’t happened on Halloween, which is the first we’ve heard of this!

At an earlier point, Martha finds a drowned child in the water; when his mother sees her with him she cries “Jack! Jack!” and continues to sob his name. The following scene, down the Garda station, has Martha ask a garda: “What was the boys name?”

A number of subplots pop up without purpose, including a sequence of marital infidelity that comes from nowhere interesting and goes nowhere at all.

It’s sloppy work, which is a shame because it has merit – it is wonderfully shot in some impressive Irish countryside locations, Morton and Anderson both pull off their roles, and Daisy is genuinely unsettling. But it all builds up to an open-ended climax that reveals that even the writer had no idea how to end this.

There isn’t even a theme, in two charming early sequences a crucifix is referenced (bringing to mind if nothing else The Exorcist), implying that there might be a theme of old beliefs versus new, but this never fully materialises. By the end of the film the only moral on show is that autistic children should be culled before they kill us all!

It was a dreadful end to what had otherwise been a terrific week of solid film viewing. Here’s looking forward to next year, when hopefully I’ll be able to take a more active role. And perhaps I can take in a few more festivals in the interim.

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