Here’s quick run-down of some recent productions I’ve seen. Be warned, as these reviews are quite late in the day, I’ve been generous in my provision of spoilers…
Five Go To Rehab
To complete my reviews of Comic Strip films, I sat down to watch Five Go To Rehab with some trepidation. The first Comic Strip film, Five Go Mad In Dorset, is as good as anything the team is capable of but the sequel, Five Go Mad On Mescalin, produced just a year later, managed to tarnish the memory of the original, rather than add anything significant to the corpus. With the sole exception of Four Men In A Car, everything from Red Rose of Courage has ranged from disappointing (The Hunt for Tony Blair) to ghastly (Wild Turkey) but the idea of the Famous Five reunited in late-middle-age is a very good one, so I was prepared to enjoy this production for satellite station Gold.
Performances, in general, were great. All four leads look a little chunkier, a little puffier than before, but French and Saunders are as great as ever, Richardson essays a fine line in pop-eyed dementia and Edmondson, given the lion’s share of the plot to shoulder, does a truly excellent job (although his character has been subject to even further revisions since Mescalin when he already bore little resemblance to the person in Dorset).
The execution, as ever, was the problem. The script seems very uncertain about where the comedy lies, alternately presenting fake adventures with real ones, and lazily making not one but two of the main characters secret alcoholics, holed up at the same bizarre rest home. While it’s a pleasure to see Robbie Coltrane reprise his role, mere nostalgia isn’t enough to sustain the running time when the plot is as ropey as this. The appearance of Daniel Peacock at the end re-energises the story considerably and the betrayal of his own children is a great ending, but leaving the Rik Mayall / Felix Dexter storyline dangling is lazy and pointless. Another minor misfire, although not without its incidental pleasures.
One of the most eagerly-anticipated films of recent years, with a delicious high-concept premise fleshed out by two wonderful stars. Bruce Willis is Joseph Gordon-Levitt from the future and they’re trying to kill each other. Who wouldn’t want to watch that? Sadly, the end result is a somewhat of a mixed bag. I don’t object to Rian Johnson’s cheerfully inconsistent view of time-travel, especially when it produces scenes as heart-stoppingly gruesome and astonishing as Frank Brennan’s horrible demise. Time travel never makes sense anyway, so complaining that it doesn’t make sense in any specific way is slightly pointless, even if a movie is flagrantly breaking its own rules. What’s less forgiveable is the way the movie abandons its delicious premise about half-way through for another movie entirely, one which is rather less interesting and lumbers the plot with double mumbo-jumbo, albeit blessed with two lovely performances from Emily Blunt and six-year-old Pierce Gagnon, who is nothing short of miraculous.
What’s even harder to forgive is the gigantic plot-hole which sits at the heart of this film and which seems to have been rather unremarked upon. As Gordon-Levitt’s character explains via voice-over “Time travel has not yet been invented. But thirty years from now, it will have been. It will be instantly outlawed, used only in secret by the largest criminal organizations. It’s nearly impossible to dispose of a body in the future. I’m told. Tagging techniques, whatnot. So when these future criminal organizations in the future need someone gone, they use specialized assassins in our present, called loopers.” Okay fine, so characters like our hero Joe get instructions to lie in wait for a victim to be zapped back in time, bound and gagged with payment in silver strapped to them, and when they appear, blast them with a shotgun, take the body to a furnace and stash the silver for themselves.
When one of these assassins (“Loopers”) is retired, the future mob sends the old version of them back in time (“closing the loop”). They get extra payment in gold and can retire from this brutal life. That’s one niggle right there – why should not the killing of one’s future self be the first assassination? Why does it have to be the last? But anyway, in one of the film’s most elegant narrative sequences, we see Young Joe fail to execute Old Joe who appears unbound and so escapes. We then apparently flash back to the same scene again, this time watching Young Joe blast Old Joe away when he appears, correctly trussed-up. In a long montage sequence we watch Young Joe celebrate his retirement, get bored, grow old, fall in love, and become Old Joe who eventually has a run-in with the mob who come for him, guns blazing, slaying his wife who is caught in the crossfire. Joe is taken to the warehouse where the time-travel machine is housed, and it becomes his only means of escape and thus, when he arrives in front of Young Joe, he is untied and ready to outwit his younger self. The whole of Old Joe’s motivation from this point on is to prevent his future – the future in which his beloved wife is killed by the mob – from occurring.
But it seems almost inevitable that if you stick clever criminals in a time-machine and send them back twenty-five years that they will find a way of fucking-up whatever you have planned for them. If it is “impossible to dispose of a body” as we are told, then a far better plan would be to shoot unwanted persons through the head and then send the dead body back in time for disposal. Bursting in to Old Joe’s place, firing weapons with lethal force, demonstrates that actually the mob is perfectly happy to kill people in the future. They just prefer to send living bodies back in time, because – well because it makes for a better movie apparently.
Anyway, there’s a lot to enjoy here, but movies that want to play with science fiction concepts like this need to be a bit more careful to deal with these kinds of inconsistencies. I’m not saying it’s Prometheus bad – just a bit sloppy.
In the hope of getting a jump on my Best Picture Nominees programme for 2013, I went to see Argo, the third film directed by Ben Affleck. Having greatly admired Gone Baby Gone and thoroughly enjoyed The Town, it was with very high hopes that I went to see this, and despite paying a premium to sit virtually around the corner from the television-sized screen, in the very back row of the smallest auditorium at my local Odeon (ugh!), Argo made me smile a lot. Just like The King’s Speech, it’s perfect Oscar fodder. Not a great film, perhaps, but a very, very good one, expertly balancing humour, suspense and character notes; blending a real-life story with a bit of Hollywood sparkle; and tackling big themes without confronting any deeply-held beliefs.
To its credit, the screenplay fearlessly plays fast-and-loose with the truth when it makes for a better film. The two major scenes on which the structure of the movie rests – one of the hostages declaring that the plan will never work, and that same hostage playing his role to the hilt when they are detained at the airport – are complete fiction. So are the most exciting and suspenseful scenes – the “location scout” in the bazaar, the last-minute scramble for tickets and the final runway chase. And for that matter so is the most entertaining character – Alan Arkin’s hard-bitten Hollywood producer.
But none of this matters when the attention to detail is so great and the forward momentum of the plot is maintained so effortlessly. Chris Terrio’s screenplay is brilliantly written and Affleck’s evocation of the period is breathtaking. And Argo probably has the best supporting cast of the year, with John Goodman, Bryan Cranston, Richard Kind, Philip Baker Hall, Bob Gunton, Titus Welliver and any number of other familiar faces joining Affleck in his astonishingly accurate recreation of 1979-80. Marvellous entertainment and an amazing true (or at least true-ish) story of courage and ingenuity, it hardly puts a foot wrong, provided you aren’t expecting a super-accurate history lesson.
This week comes news that Skyfall is the most successful film ever at the UK box office, scooping up in ten weeks what it took second-place contender Avatar eleven months to haul in, and without Avatar’s stereoscopic tax (such movies are not 3D). And a well-deserved achievement it is too. Director Sam Mendes and screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan have accomplished a minor miracle here. Unceremoniously junking Quantum of Solace’s tediously unresolved storyline, the new movie brazenly reinvents Bond, whom we last saw as a febrile and undisciplined rookie, now as weather-beaten and rueful veteran. I adore Kim Newman’s theory which is that between Quantum and this film, all the other 007 adventures have befallen the Daniel Craig Bond. So, having left Dominic Greene to die in the desert, this man has faced Dr No in Jamaica, battled Oddjob in Fort Knox, married and lost Tracey Vincenzo, blown up Hugo Drax’s secret space station, sledded on Kara Milovy’s cello case, been betrayed by Alec Trevelyan and been held prisoner by General Moon in North Korea (inter-alia).
In the amazing pre-credits sequence – just possibly the best-ever – Bond pursues his quarry on foot, by car, on a motorcycle, and eventually on a train, before a badly-aimed bullet from Naomi Harris’s younger agent’s gun sends him plummeting into one of the best title sequences the series has ever produced. From a twenty-first century perspective, many of Maurice Binder’s once-innovative sequences look repetitive and clumsy, with awkward post-production camera moves reducing the gyrating figures to cardboard cut-outs. Daniel Kleinman’s revolutionary GoldenEye titles added a third dimension thanks to modern CGI technology, and gave us a virtual camera able to slide smoothly past surreal vistas with genuine depth. The three subsequent sequences failed to live up to the splendour of his first, but the flat graphic style of the Casino Royale sequence was exactly what was required – utterly different from any previous incarnation, and yet recognisably a continuation of what had gone before. That’s what long-running series like the Bonds need to be, and that’s Skyfall all over – the titles included. Returning to the fold having missed Quantum, here Kleinman’s CGI camera pushes forward, forward, forward, through a landscape with more depth than ever before. It’s a remarkable piece of work.
Returning to the fold, Bond is tested and found wanting, but M nevertheless sends him out on the trail of Raoul Silva who has blown up MI6. Together with the immensely striking Bérénice Marlohe, he tracks Silva down with apparent ease, but must sacrifice his latest girlfriend to do so. The execution of the apparently leading Bond girl within about 20 minutes is another shocking development, another radical departure from established practice, although I have to criticise Sam Mendes or Barbara Broccoli or the BBFC or someone for squeamishness here. Forced into playing a murderous game of William Tell with a bound Sevrine and a shot-glass, Bond shoots and misses, following which Silva wins the game by simply shooting her through the head – but the photographing of this shocking development is so coy that it’s easy to mistake this kill-shot for another poor aim by the marksman and a flinch from the target. A shame, as this moment should have been heart-in-the-mouth stuff. It’s not unusual for James Bond films to begin with a “sacrificial lamb” Bond girl (Jill Masterson, Aki, Rosie Carver, Andrea Anders, Corinne Dufour, Paris Carver, Solange, Strawberry Fields, etc etc) but it’s unprecedented for the leading Bond girl to be executed half-way through the movie, never to be replaced.
No more so than in his interrogation scene, Javier Bardem has tremendous fun with this camply disturbing character, and the revolting jaw prosthesis which he wears. His Lawrence of Arabia style entrance, walking slowly towards camera in a single shot, is also worthy of note – possibly Mendes’ reposte to the frantic cutting of Quantum which helped make that film such an unsatisfactory experience. From here, Silva’s plan becomes increasingly unlikely, but criticising the movie for this I rather think this misses the point. The best Bond films, with the possible exception of From Russia With Love, aren’t spy thrillers at all, they are colossal absurd fantasy adventures. The trick is in balancing the insane on-screen action with enough ballast so it doesn’t just become laughable. Daniel Craig adjusting his cuffs as he lands on the back of that train is perfect. Blofeld evading capture by dragging up (Diamonds Are Forever) is harder to take seriously, and Bond pretending to be Tarzan (Octopussy) is so stupid as to be insulting. Silva trying to kill Bond by chucking an entire tube train at him is hard to take, sure, but the execution is so faultless and the idea so extraordinary, I’m perfectly happy to watch it in delighted slack-jawed amazement – it seems rather dull trying to wonder just what it would take to plan, time and pull-off such an outré method of execution. You might as well complain that the idea of a “licence to kill” isn’t entirely credible.
From here, the film boldly veers off into completely uncharted territory. There’s no particular reason why not, but Bond has never really presented a siege situation before. In film after film, Bond has stormed the villain’s lair at the end, whether solo (GoldenEye, Quantum of Solace) with modest back-up (For Your Eyes Only, Tomorrow Never Dies) or at the head of massive army (You Only Live Twice, The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker) but never before has he holed-up in a safe house, set traps and waited for the villain to come to him. This splendidly suspenseful sequence both delivers the necessary excitement and catharsis and exemplifies the film’s theme – sometimes the old ways are the best. But the cost is ghastly – Judi Dench’s redoubtable M has paid the ultimate price.
It’s not until the credits begin rolling that I really took on board what had been wrought in the closing moments of Skyfall. This most revisionist of Bonds, as much a reboot as Casino Royale in its own way, has been quietly rebuilding the old Bond before our very eyes. Not just the little nods to previous movies (Bond’s escape on the backs of some reptiles, Q’s caustic reference to exploding pens, Bond telling Eve to stop touching her ear, probably others), but the mythos of Connery, Moore and Dalton movies is being reassmbled. As the screen fades to black, we are back to a patrician and avuncular M with complete if sometimes testy faith in agent 007, whose office hides behind a leather-panelled door, guarded by a spunky Moneypenny and whose payroll includes an enthusiastic gadget man, designated Q – a line-up we haven’t seen since 1989. Welcome home 007. I can hardly wait for your next mission.