Since our website is still down and I haven’t done a review since I wrote about Ben Affleck’s excellent ARGO, I thought I might as well jot down a few thoughts on SKYFALL, the 23rd entry in the James Bond 007 franchise.
Much of the talk surrounding SKYFALL has focused on it as the best Bond film ever. This is beside the point. SKYFALL is a very different kind of Bond film, and as Anton and I discussed on Sunday, the James Bond canon is so large and varied, it has no single “perfect” film, just 23 entries that add up to one of the greatest franchises ever.
What makes SKYFALL so fascinating beyond its technical proficiency is that it’s a reflection on the character of James Bond and the necessity of the series as a whole. Bond is battered and bruised and something of a dinosaur in this new world of cyber terrorism and remote operations and public transparency. Does MI6 still need a suave bastard in a tux with a gun and a martini to get the job done and does Hollywood need conventional, goofy franchises like Bond anymore when the world is so serious? The film ends up arguing a resounding yes on both accounts.
And in the process it proves just how essential and special a franchise the James Bond films are. SKYFALL is a triumph. Bringing in a true cinematic artist like Sam Mendes, who is not a perfect director but has made some truly astonishing films, best of all REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, and who consciously tries to bring in art and meaning into everything he directs, was a wise decision. The result is a very confidently directed film. The performances are excellent - Judi Dench as M and Javier Bardem as the instantly iconic homoerotic villain Silva are the standouts.
The visual style is superb — I can’t think of a scene from another film this year as beautiful as the Shanghai sequence, save perhaps the opening sequence of PROMETHEUS with the barren crags of creation. And the extended finale in Scotland is a marvel of natural lighting and using a very particular colour palette — but this can be expected when it is shot by one of the world’s greatest cinematographers, Roger Deakins. Mendes and Deakins also tie the themes of the film into the film’s visual scheme, something that proficient craftsmen but lesser artists would never think to do. The recurring motif of silhouettes — specifically of Silva (who acts as a doppelganger of Bond) and Bond — highlights the film’s thesis of these sorts of characters operating from the shadows.
I’ve already gone on longer than I had intended when I said I’d merely capture a few of my many thoughts on the film. Suffice to say, SKYFALL blew me away. In terms of pure cinema, it’s possibly the best film of the year. I’ve seen it twice so far (once in IMAX) and I can only imagine that successive viewings will reveal greater rewards. This isn’t just great entertainment. This is a great film.
Due to foreseeable technical difficulties, 3brothersfilm.com is on hiatus as we work to rebuild the site. We hope to relaunch the site in a few weeks, but in the meantime you can still follow us on Tumblr and on Twitter. So the conversation has lulled, but it isn’t over. Thank you for reading!
Alex Gibney is one of the best documentarians working today. He may lack the emotional heft of a filmmaker like Steve James (or James’s extraordinary ability to film the most personal moments in other people’s lives) but as an investigator and researcher, he is peerless, save perhaps by Charles Ferguson. I saw his latest film on Sept. 10 at TIFF12, and was both impressed by the film and extremely disturbed by the subject matter.
MEA MAXIMA CULPA: SILENCE IN THE HOUSE OF GOD is an investigation into the Catholic Church’s institutional coverups of pedophilia among the priesthood, specifically having to do with crimes committed in Milwaukee, Wisconsin by Lawrence Murphy in the 1960s, who ran a church home for the deaf. I don’t have the stomach to get into the details, but the case involving Murphy in Milwaukee was the first instance of victims publicly accusing a priest of sexual abuse. Gibney investigates the crimes in Milwaukee, talking to the deaf victims of abuse, and follows the trail of coverups all the way to the Vatican and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI.
The film acts as a call to arms against the Catholic Church’s coverups of priestly abuse and its aim is the opening up of the Vatican archives, where every priestly abuse has been recorded and kept hidden from the public. In the post film Q&A, Gibney clarified that the film is as much an investigation and expose of how all institutions will always seek to cover their tracks and not report internal crimes as much as it is an attack against the Catholic Church. And as demonstrated by the Penn State sex abuse scandal, it is not only the Catholic Church that is guilty of such coverups.
As a film, MEA MAXIMA CULPA is excellent. Gibney shames other documentarians in how he is able to beautifully photograph documents and conduct interviews. For the interviews with the deaf victims of Murphy, Gibney doesn’t provide subtitles for the men. He leaves their sign language alone and then has various actors (Chris Cooper, Ethan Hawke, John Slattery) provide voiceover for the victims. It’s a remarkably effective tactic, allowing us to pay full attention to the signing of the victims, while still understanding what they are saying. Subtitles would have distracted the viewer from paying attention to the victims’ hands, while voiceover allows for our visual attention to remain fixed. Small decisions like this are the mark of an exceptional documentarian.
The anti-Catholicism of the film troubles me, and I fear that the film will serve as an incentive for people to demand the destruction of the Catholic Church, not just the righting of wrongs in its administration and handling of these scandals. However, as an investigative documentarian, Gibney has every right to demand the Church come clean. For an organization claiming to be the rightful Church of God, the Catholic Church needs to stop these abuses, punish the wrongdoers, heal these wounds and win back the faith of the people it is sworn to serve.
It’s strange to think a film about a man paralyzed from the neck down from getting polio during childhood would play as a comedy but that’s exactly how THE SESSIONS rolls. John Hawkes play Mark O’Brien, a real-life poet who lives in an iron lung in the San Francisco area. At 38 Mark still sees himself as a child and so, under the moral guidance of his understanding priest (William H. Macy), Mark seeks out a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt) to help him lose his virginity.
The film was a big hit at Sundance, where it won the Audience Prize and the Ensemble Acting Award. It’s not hard to see why the movie is a crowd-pleaser: it’s funny, it’s conventional, it has great performances and it ends on a sentimental note. I was modestly taken in by it, mostly by John Hawkes’ pretty remarkable performance as Mark.
Without the use of his body, Hawkes still delivers a very physical, nuanced performance. Hunt and Macy are also quite good, the latter for playing an unconventionally good priest who genuinely cares about his parishioners and doesn’t let dogmatic abstractions get in the way of his understanding.
In the post-film Q&A, I got to ask William H. Macy how he approached playing a priest in a positive light, a rarity in Hollywood. Macy didn’t have the time to go in depth in answer, but he sufficed to say that his good priest was a kind of underdog and he had to approach the role knowing that the vast majority of priests in the world do their best on a day to day basis to help other people.
The film as a whole is pleasant and funny, but there’s not a whole lot of substance beyond the performances, despite the subject matter. Still, it’s worth a watch, and despite the way it’s being touted as an awards contender, I believe the film has modest ambitions. It merely seeks to make the audience laugh and feel something. I may not have been quite as enraptured as the rest of the audience but I won’t be surprised when the principle cast gets their inevitable Oscar nominations. They’re pretty darn good.
In the Q&A after the screening, lead actor Riz Ahmed, who plays the young-financial-analyst-turned-revolutionary-professor of the film’s title, said that The Reluctant Fundamentalist is about the humanity behind the labels we fix people with. I think that describes the film nicely. The film’s provocative title, with its use of the socially and politically charged word “fundamentalist,” immediately confronts our prejudices, while the adjective “reluctant” simultaneously challenges those preconceptions. He’s a fundamentalist. That means he’s a bad guy, right? Or is he just someone holding firmly to traditional beliefs? But if he has such conviction, why is he reluctant? As the story develops, and especially after the film replays the events of September 11th, 2001, our assumptions and biases are further tested.
Director Mira Nair and company also described the film as a dialogue. This works in several ways. Firstly, a great deal of the film is a literal conversation between Changez (Ahmed), a professor in Lahore, Pakistan, and a foreign correspondent (Liev Schreiber). As Changez relates his story to Bobby, how he was once a hot young financial analyst in New York City, the film also begins a dialogue about terrorism, global capitalism, American Empire, and nationalist Islamic fundamentalism. As the vagueness of the phrase “The War on Terror” has always implied, are there really clear-cut, good versus evil sides to this conflict the world faces? The film is skillful in not offering simple answers to its pertinent questions.
The acting is solid. Ahmed is particularly engaging as Changez, and even stands out among the seasoned cast. Rarely using static shots, Nair composes sequences of great energy, some even made electrifying with the accompanying surging Indian music. This is a well-made film that challenges us to think.
Abbas Kiarostami’s CERTIFIED COPY saw the Iranian master working in France with Juliet Binoche and opera star William Shimell, investigating the constancy of identity and the nature of love relationships in Tuscany. It was lovely, intellectually engaging, and one of my favourite films of last year. LIKE SOMEONE IN LOVE moves Kiarostami to Japan, and, like CERTIFIED COPY, continues to play with cinema to explore human relations in light of the philosophy of cinema.
Rin Takanashi plays Akiko, a young college student who moonlights as an escort without the knowledge of her family or her fiancé, played by Ryo Kase. One night her “boss” arranges for Akiko, who finds the job difficult, to travel to visit a special client, the aging professor, Watanabe (Tadeshi Okuno). The next day as he drops her off, Watanabe poses as Akiko’s grandfather when he meets her fiancé. The true nature of their relationship is tested and challenged over the course of the day.
The key word in the title is the word “like”, as the film is about simulating and dissimulating the various relationships of love and familial ties. Considering all the directions the material could go, Kiarostami probes deeper into the real personal stakes involved with playing at intimate connections. I was right to trust myself in Kiarostami’s hands.
Joss Whedon is King of the Geeks. We all know this, especially after the monumental success of THE AVENGERS. It seems now you can count Shakespeare geeks among his subjects as Whedon’s latest, low-budget adaptation of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING is sure to make waves among college students and geeky literate types.
I was lucky enough to attend the World Premiere of Whedon’s version on Saturday September 8 at the Elgin Theatre for TIFF. The geeks were in rapture as Whedon, Nathan Fillion, Clark Gregg and others took the stage (they gave the film 3 standing ovations, to give you an idea of how much the crowd loved the film).
I don’t intend to say the film didn’t deserve the love. It is a pretty remarkable little film, especially considering that it was filmed in only 12 days. I can’t think of another version of Shakespeare on film that is as funny, save perhaps Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 version of the same play.
Whedon does well guiding his actors through Shakespeare, presumably for the first time, and delivers some hilarious physically humor with sight gags and pratfalls.The actors are all surprisingly up to the task, considering that Shakespeare seems to be above their pedigree, and Fillion especially steals the show as the idiotic constable Dogberry. He plays the part in such a lovable idiotic way that you’d half think he thought he was in a tough 70s cop show.
The film’s black and white cinematography complements Whedon’s subtle modernization of the play. The modern day setting is never as in your face as Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 Romeo + Juliet. Whedon keeps the setting small and the vision intimate. Which is appropriate.
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING is ultimately a brilliant trifle, and Whedon is wise enough to allow the text to do the heavy lifting and not get in its way with stylistic flourishes. And yet the film is not without style. It understands that it’s a film and not a play, and acts accordingly.
Whedon’s film is not as visionary a contemporary update of Shakespeare as Ralph Fiennes’ CORIOLANUS, but it is hilarious, charming and well made. It proves that Whedon’s cleverness goes beyond the realm of genre. This low-budget film is definitely not a case of a director goofing around with his closest friends, which it so easily could have been.
I haven’t read Leo Tolstoy’s massive nineteenth-century novel about a tumultuous love affair between two Russian aristocrats, but I’m nevertheless impressed with the terrific pace and unusual style of this unique adaptation by director Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride & Prejudice) and writer Tom Stoppard.
Repeated images of train wheels and spinning dances propel the romantic, disastrous affair between the heroine Anna (Keira Knightley) and the dashing Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) towards its fatal conclusion. Anna is married to the pious if cold Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), who, if he makes decisions we may not understand or like, is still a good man. The affair causes quite the scandal among the hypocritical Russian elites. Structurally, Anna’s affair is paralleled by several other romantic/relationship plots. The story engages in a serious discussion about the paradoxical nature of romantic love as something both necessary and good yet possibly destructive, while pointing a firm finger against the double standard for men in adultery. I’m sure the novel is even more complex, but the film is satisfyingly ambivalent towards the love affair, in contrast to, say, your average rom-com.
Where the film really shines is in the mise-en-scene. Not surprisingly when we note that Tom Stoppard (Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead) wrote the screenplay, the story seems to take place in a sort of theatre. Of course, none of the characters are aware of this surreal aspect, and some scenes are shot out of doors, but often transitions are performed with a curtain being raised, etc. and so many movements are performed as a kind of dance. Joe Wright, a master of sweeping camera shots, captures this all beautifully. If the theatrical aspect is a bit bewildering at the beginning, we soon get to used to it, and it certainly adds to the adaptation. For one thing, it highlights the performativity of high-society and romance. For another, it creates some special moments, such as when Alexei ponders his fate on a dark stage or when a real racing train transforms into an obvious toy.
The trailer had advertised this as “a bold new vision of the classic novel,” or some such thing, and this is finally an adaptation that lives up to the claim.
It’s not great news for Shion Sono’s nuclear/family drama when the world premiere’s most memorable moment was the director disappearing to “grab a bite” and missing the Q&A. That’s not to say the film doesn’t have anything going for it though; the movie just tends to drag despite some poignant scenes.
The film is about another nuclear crisis in Japan after Fukushima. Our view is limited though. Sono focuses on the inner dynamics of one family in the Nagashima prefecture living just outside the emergency tape marking the 20 mile radius in danger from radiation. Personal fears contrast with the public compulsion to pretend that everything is fine.
The film starts strong. The rigid yet kind father and the mother with dementia are really good characters, and Sono composes nice clean shots. I particularly like how he uses intensely amplified rumblings to convey growing suspicions and fears about radiation in characters. The story drags though. I got bored with yet another tearful farewell between father and son. This drama, though gentle, would still benefit from a tighter structure.