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SPECTREOK let’s cut to the chase. Spectre (or should that be SPECTRE?) isn’t quite up there with the very best of the James Bond films, and there’s nothing here as surprising as the intense, moody final half hour of its predecessor Skyfall, which was also directed by Sam Mendes, but it’s certainly one of the better efforts of the last thirty years and will undoubtedly keep fans entertained. It feels like it could be a suitable end to the Daniel Craig era though that would be a shame after just four films and the multi-authored screenplay nods repeatedly to deceased characters from the actor’s three previous films, giving the impression that a big story arc is drawing to a close (though, in truth, there are elements at play in the screenplay that suggest Spectre can be viewed as the beginning of a longer story). Time will tell if this is Craig’s last appearance in the role, but if it is he ought to be satisfied with his work; the same goes for Mendes, who seems to be indicating in recent press junkets that he has little interest in making a third Bond film.

An opening title card mysteriously suggests that ‘the dead are alive’, and although there isn’t anything as silly as a Bobby Ewing-style return for Judi Dench’s M in Spectre we do feel the presence of figurative ghosts, as the criminal organisation-referencing title suggests: requests are made from beyond the grave and certain faces come back to haunt our hero, while the villain is a throwback to an earlier era. It is quickly revealed that recent enemies of Bond, such as Casino Royale‘s Le Chiffre, were part of a wider criminal society one that will need no introduction to fans of the series and naturally it’s 007’s job to infiltrate this shadowy cabal while simultaneously fending off accusations of SITE_LEAobsoletion (which emanate from a Whitehall that would rather use drones in the field than actual agents); soon enough there’s a nemesis in place (Christoph Waltz’s Franz Oberhauser), a henchman who refuses to die (Dave Bautista’s muscular Mr Hinx) and the requisite love interest (Léa Seydoux’s Dr. Madeleine Swann), all vying for the secret agent’s time and attention. Throw in some rather smart clothing, a Martini or two and a swish car and there you have it: the series may have moved with the times over the years, and this latest installment pays lip service to modern technology, surveillance and the pursuit of information, but some things will never change.

Mendes begins his film with a bravura sequence that features a long, impressive tracking shot through the skeleton-faced crowds of Mexico City’s Día de Muertos celebrations and ends with a thrilling action set piece which, for my money, tops the celebrated prologue to this year’s Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. It is fantastically tense, but as with Rogue Nation you get a feeling while movies-spectre-daniel-craig-ben-whishawwatching the rest of the film that nothing is going to match those opening ten minutes. It’s also worth mentioning at this point that both movies feature slightly similar endings, shot at night about a mile or two apart from one another. As a former Londoner of 15 years I definitely prefer it when my globetrotting spy thrillers stay in locales that are exotic to my eyes and ears, such as Mexico City and Tangiers; when said blockbusters climax in London I’m usually disappointed with the scenes, though on balance I prefer Spectre‘s tense finale to Rogue Nation‘s, despite the fact that the city seems weirdly underpopulated.

The hard edge that was introduced a decade ago to the Bond franchise, as it sought to catch up with the Jason Bourne films, is present once again: Craig continues his portrayal of a tough, cold, statuesque version of the character and as per usual his fight scenes feature brutal, bloody beatings instead of cheesy one-liners. He does have a few cheeky rebuttals for his seniors and there are also the standard moments of dry, flirty wit, but most of the film’s humour arrives courtesy of Ben Whishaw’s Q, a character with a slightly more enhanced role than usual (ditto Ralph Fiennes’ M and Naomie Harris’ Eve Moneypenny). Indeed for a split second, as the four team up on English soil, it almost seems as if Mendes is actively courting comparison with the Mission: Impossible series. Surely not?

There are several nods to older Bond films throughout, and anyone familiar with the Connery/Lazenby/Moore years will enjoy spotting the references, the obvious ones being Goldfinger, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, The Spy Who Loved Me, Thunderball, Dr. No and Live And Let Die (though there are probably even more). The main problem with this is that it’s hard not to think of the Austin Powers films that mercilessly lampooned the very same scenes, especially when we see SPECTRE meetings taking place at long oval tables or Bond being tortured for an unnecessarily long time instead of simply being shot in the head when first taken captive. You half expect Dr Evil to walk in front of the camera and explain that he’s going to leave him alone and not actually witness him dying…he’s just going to assume it all went to plan. But of course such silliness is entertaining enough in itself, and Mendes is a sound judge of tone; there are plenty of camp moments here, and one must suspend disbelief as always, but the director blends the more laughable aspects of the franchise with spectacular action and grit, resulting in a winning, multiplex-pleasing mix. Spectre isn’t the best of the recent James Bond films, it has a forgettable theme song and I wish there was a shorter cut to compare with the 150 minute released version, but overall: good.

Directed by: Sam Mendes.
Written by: John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Jez Butterworth. Based on James Bond by Ian Fleming.
Starring: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Dave Bautista, Andrew Scott, Monica Bellucci, Ralph Fiennes, Rory Kinnear.
Cinematography: Hoyt van Hoytema.
Editing: Lee Smith.
Music: Thomas Newman.
Certificate:
12A.
Running Time:
148 minutes.
Year:
2015.

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There’s a reason why Yorgos Lanthimos has a reputation for being a director who is drawn first and foremost to stories with unusual premises, but his English language debut The Lobster makes previous efforts like Dogtooth and Alps look like the works of a committed realist. One of the stranger films I’ve seen in 2015, it’s a satire about love, dating, coupledom and singledom, set in Ireland, and taking place either in an alternative present to our own or in the very near future. In this world being single has effectively been outlawed by the state and defiant loners live as fugitives in the wild; single people are forced to attend a kind of strictly-run dating camp in a rural hotel and may only return to the city if they have successfully coupled-up within 45 days. Those who fail to do so are turned into an animal of their own choosing, and there’s no explanation as to how or why this has come to be  it just is. Our guide comes in the (unusually portly) shape of Colin Farrell, whose character David is first seen being unceremoniously booted out by his wife of eleven years, who no longer loves him. Without much ado the newly-single David dutifully checks in to a giant spa hotel on the coast, where he is tasked with finding a suitable mate. Pressed on the matter he states that his animal of choice, should it be necessary, is a lobster, and he gives a number of peculiar reasons as to why that is the case. Most other people, according to Olivia Coleman’s stern hotel manager, choose dogs; and that’s why there are so many dogs in the world.

lobster-620x400So far so odd. In fact Yorgos Lanthimos’ English language debut is overflowing with oddness, particularly during its hotel-set first half. Guests are referred to by their defining characterstics and include Ben Whishaw’s Limping Man, Ashley Jensen’s Biscuit Woman (she is a fan of butter biscuits), John C. Reilly’s Lisping Man, and so forth; it is these single characteristics that must be relied upon in order to find a match among the other guests. As a group they are given rather stilted demonstrations by hotel staff that show the benefits of being in a couple and must attend excruciatingly awkward dances in which all the men wear the same combination of blazer, shirt and trousers and all the women wear the same kind of dress. Meanwhile each day an alarm sounds and the hotel’s single guests are bundled into a minibus and driven to the nearby woods, where they must hunt loners; bagging a loner with a tranquiliser dart gives the captor an extra night’s accommodation in the hotel, thereby extending their stay of grace. And if you think that’s all very strange then wait until you see the delights of room service or the punishment meted out to anyone caught masturbating in flagrante.

Performances are deliberately stilted and the minimal dialogue is spoken by the actors in an awkward fashion. A female voiceover occasionally tells us how David is feeling but it too is suitably deadpan, applying a matter-of-factness to the whole coupling thing and the whole animal thing. I found the first half of The Lobster very funny indeed, but the appeal of its humour is far from broad, and I expect a lot of people will either dislike it outright or be left scratching their heads as to why pockets of audience members are chuckling away. However it helps that Farrell, Jensen, Whishaw, Coleman and Reilly have a very good grasp of the tone Lanthimos and his regular co-writer Efthimis Filippou are going for, and the utter indifference displayed by their characters with regard to the situation they are in helps to sell the outlandish premise.

lobster-film-review-oct15I’m not the first reviewer to make the following point but sadly the film does lose its way when the action moves on from the hotel. The Lobster‘s second half, which introduces several more characters (played competently enough by the likes of Léa Seydoux, Rachel Weisz and Michael Smiley), simply isn’t as weird, as interesting or as funny as the first, and although there are amusing moments the species of animals wandering around in the background in the woods grows ever more incongruous by the minute it begins to drag long before the offbeat, dangling finale. Once Lanthimos has established the idea that there is great pressure on members of society to become part of a couple he labours the point that similar levels of pressure and dogmatism also apply to those who are resolutely celibate, and all-but forgets about the metamorphosis aspect of the screenplay; as the film moved past the 90 minute mark a few members of the audience in the screening I attended walked out, though in most cases that can be taken as a sign of an interesting film, for one reason or another. Still, it feels like there was a chance for something extra special here, a kind of Being John Malkovich for the modern day, but greatness just slips out of The Lobster‘s claws. That said there’s more than enough here to warrant a viewing and there’s plenty of arch commentary on the dating merry-go-round.

Directed by: Yorgos Lanthimos.
Written by: Yorgos Lanthimos, Efthimis Filippou.
Starring: Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, John C. Reilly, Léa Seydoux, Angeliki Papoulia, Ariane Labed, Ben Whishaw, Michael Smiley, Olivia Coleman, Ashley Jensen.
Cinematography: Thimios Bakatakis.
Editing: Yorgos Mavropsaridis.
Certificate:
15.
Running Time:
118 minutes.
Year:
2015.

 

18 Comments

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - GHOST PROTOCOLWithout consciously making a deliberate decision I dropped off the Mission: Impossible bandwagon after the disappointing second film, though the release of a fifth this week has persuaded me to get back on, rewind and watch Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, the fourth action spectacular to feature Tom Cruise’s American super-agent Ethan Hunt (as well as established call signs such as as Lalo Schifrin’s magnificent theme and those self-destructing messages).

Ghost Protocol is the quintessential modern franchise blockbuster, a film that tries to provide most things for most tastes: as a viewer you’re required to do nothing more than switch off and enjoy watching the conventionally good-looking actors, the spectacular action, the easy comedy, the suspense and the resultant triumph for a western power. It carefully adheres to that rigid modern format: there’s an exciting prologue and the requisite three big set pieces that follow take place in far-flung locations, each one involving peril but also cautiously safe and bloodless (a conscious decision made to keep some distance between Mission: Impossible and Bourne, or latter-day Bond, but admittedly one that has been ever present in the series as far as I can remember). There’s also a strong whiff of contractual obligation throughout, whether it’s from the glitzy lifestyle-oriented product placement (BMW and Volkswagen cars, Apple’s gadgets, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, Persol sunglasses) or the overly-familiar shot of The Cruiser at the end as he looks straight down the camera (yes, I know he’s supposed to be looking at someone from afar, but he’s got to ensure that the giddier members of the audience are still coming back for more piercing stares when he’s in his 60s). A flimsy, time-worn plot strings the action sequences together (in this case characters are racing to either start or stop a nuclear war between the US and Russia) and we finish with a brief hint that there will be another tale plopping into our lives in a few years’ time, as if we couldn’t have guessed anyway.

Helping Hunt this time round are team members played by Simon Pegg, Paula Patton and Jeremy Renner. The former’s there to provide comic relief, and in doing so repeatedly makes you wonder what kind of halfwit organisation would place all of its eggs in The Simon Pegg Character’s basket when the stakes are this high. The second kicks ass and conveniently provides insurance against accusations that the whole shebang is one big sausagefest. However the reality is that this franchise is one big sausagefest, tellingly bringing Pegg and Renner’smi-ghost-protocol-still09 characters back for no. 5 while dispensing with Patton’s; Rogue Nation‘s director Christopher McQuarrie stated that Patton was unavailable for the 2015 film because of scheduling issues, though given the fact she only worked on one movie in 2014, in which she had a minor role, and apparently didn’t work on any TV shows, one has to wonder if that really is the case (though perhaps ‘scheduling’ was used simply to keep private decisions private). Anyway, they could have re-cast if they actually gave a damn about the character, but let’s move on to Renner, who looks a little sheepish as he prepares to play ‘second fiddle’ in yet another blockbuster; perhaps we’re witnessing the face of a man who is coming to terms with being in some of the biggest movies of the era while knowing deep down that they’re actually limiting him.

Up against the team are baddies Michael Nyqvist and Léa Seydoux, though sadly the more interesting villain of the two is killed off around the hour mark; I either missed or tuned out of the scene explaining why they’re doing what they’re doing, but it’s definitely something to do with diamonds, or money, or nihilism, or world peace, or a general desire to be a complete fucker, or an audition for a six-year scholarship to Evil Medical School. I’ve lost count of the number of action films that narrow a worldwide threat down to the activities of one single individual, but this is definitely another one of them.

None of this really matters anyway, because the selling point of the film – the reason lots and lots of people went to see it and enjoyed it – is obviously the frenetic action above all else, and very impressive it is too. The first act takes place in Moscow, and although eyes may roll at the resurrection of the old east-vs-west scenario so beloved of writers in the 1980s, I have to admit that watching Cruise’s Hunt run away from an exploding Kremlin while wearing a Bruce Springsteen t-shirt elicited a few chuckles in my house (as did the gadgetry on display, some of which would have been deemed ‘too ridiculous’ by the makers of Die Another Day). After Moscow the characters reconvene in Dubai a very Tom Cruise Action Movie destination – where the tallest building in the world serves as a backdrop for some quite breathtaking vertical thrills n’ spills and also as a big glass n’ metal muse to cinematographer Robert Elswit. Lastly the story shifts to Mumbai, where Hunt and co manage to avert tragedy at the very last second by pressing a red button next to a digital clock that’s counting-down, an image that I have not seen in the movies for at least three whole weeks.

Although it takes place in a weird futuristic garage with thousands of cars stacked on top of one another the fight at the end is every bit as disappointing as ‘two middle-aged men scrapping over a briefcase’ sounds, especially in light of what has preceded it, but I’ll be kind, shrug, and point out that I’ve certainly seen worse (both pre- and post-Jason Bourne’s screen debut). It’s also the only time that Cruise moves like a man approaching his 50s, but what’s interesting is that this extended finale, beginning with the infiltration of a swanky party, is oddly reminiscent of the very first team-oriented snafu in Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible (albeit without the surprise character deaths, a game-changer at the time). And that pretty much sums up franchises like this one for me; you watch and you watch and you watch but it’s the same film over and over again, with tweaks made so that it looks like the emperor’s wearing new clothes. The first cut is always the deepest, regardless of any influx of new faces and regardless of the crazier stunts, though I won’t deny that this is exhilarating and tense at times.

Directed by: Brad Bird.
Written by: Josh Applebaum, André Nemec. Based on Mission Impossible by Bruce Geller.
Starring: Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Paula Patton, Simon Pegg, Michael Nyqvist, Léa Seydoux.
Cinematography: Robert Elswit.
Editing: Paul Hirsch.
Music: Michael Giacchino, Lalo Schifrin.
Certificate: PG.
Running Time: 129 minutes.
Year: 2011.

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