Skyfall (Sam Mendes, 2012) – With the possible exception of Casino Royale, films in the James Bond franchise have traditionally never been among any critic’s best of the year lists. They can often be decently entertaining spy yarns and action films, but until the release of Sam Mendes’ take on 007 with Skyfall none had truly achieved as firm of a sense of greatness. Skyfall is one hell of a movie going experience, and next to the sheer iconography of Sean Connery in From Russia with Love (made before the character had any real sense of cliché and the entry that essentially solidified the formula for the series) it’s the best entry in the franchise without a shadow of a doubt.
Following a botched operation to retrieve a hard drive possessing the names of every embedded NATO operative running counter terrorism around the world and being presumed dead, James Bond (Daniel Craig) returns of his own accord to London’s MI-6 a shell of the man he used to be. He’s injured, slower, and slightly disillusioned, but still with a sense of duty towards M (Judi Dench) and his country as he agrees to get back in the game to take on the ruthless and sadistic Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), a former secret agent himself turned cyber terrorist.
Following one of the most thrilling openings to a Bond film – involving a fight on every possible part of a train that manages to incorporate some unlikely heavy machinery and easily the most depressing and stunning opening title sequence of the franchise -Mendes proves to have the skills to lead this entry to greatness. Having previously never directed anything with this degree of spectacle to it, the filmmaker best known for American Beauty and Road to Perdition balances the new Bond’s sense of pathos and realism with good old fashioned escapism. He’s servicing the material in some of the most classical ways possible. Mendes knows he has to keep things as serious and as tense as ever following Craig’s two previous outings, but he also delivers the goods with a breathtaking sense of kineticism and pacing that make the film feel like a brisk 90 minutes instead of the 144 it really is.
There’s hardly any breathing room in Mendes’ film, and for once, that’s a positive. Every action within Skyfall beams with a sense of true urgency and human drama that no one else has captured in the series to date. Even though the story from the script (courtesy of old Bond hands Neal Purvis and Robert Wade working with John Logan of Hugo and Rango fame) cribs somewhat shamelessly from GoldenEye and License to Kill (the former of which gets cleverly reference throughout this film in terms of how ridiculous it was), Mendes constantly finds new ways to make things seem new and fresh. A lot of the film comes from interesting elements from previous films that simply didn’t work on their own, but are incorporated as parts of a much stronger whole here.
This entry’s only real detraction ends up becoming a positive by the end of the film. Much like Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace before it, Skyfall kind of stops caring about the main plot set-up towards the end in order to give way to yet another narrative of revenge instead of wrapping up a stand alone story. But this time the stakes are far greater and a lot more game-changing to the franchise as a whole. To say more would be getting into that nasty spoiler territory.
The real technical MVP here, however, has to be cinematographer Roger Deakins, the best living cameraman working today that still, astoundingly, hasn’t won an Oscar yet despite nine previous nominations. If he doesn’t win this year for his work here, there’s no hope for that category. A scene involving the observation of an assassin in a Shanghai office building should garner him that prize alone even over all of the flashier and bigger budgeted action sequences. It’s not only the best looking scene in any film this year, but it’s the best looking scene in Bond’s entire 50 year film career.
Craig delivers his best performance as Bond to date, which isn’t too surprising since he’s given a lot to work with. His Bond isn’t so much the cool player this time out or even necessarily the blunt force killing machine he was trained to be. The film dares to ask and follow through with questioning what would happen to this character at his lowest. At what point does Bond’s sense of duty and pride become a death wish? Even his motives for coming back are pretty suspect for most of the film until he begins to realize what he’s truly up against. Even the film’s action sequences are tailored to how banged up Bond is. They aren’t pretty very often, offering an actual sense of pain and anguish to the bombast around it.
Bond’s relationship to his long time boss M also gets strengthened thanks to an increased presence from Dench, and the push and pull between them gives the film some of its best moments, especially leading into the final act of the film. Additionally, Dench has a perfect foil and counterpart in Ralph Fiennes appearing as a defence department stooge who acts as the beleaguered intermediary between MI-6 and the Prime Minister. Also new to the MI-6 fray this time out is Ben Whishaw as the new weapons master, Q, who doesn’t specialize in gadgets so much this time out as he specializes in tactics and computer based attacks.
Also, despite brief flashes of sexuality, this entry eschews the sexualized double entendres and reveals of the past. Naomie Harris gets a great and playful scene with Craig as a fellow field agent, and Berenice Marlohe gets to play the sultry temptress, but neither is there simply as titillating fodder. Both have incredibly strong character arcs for Bond women, and together the two help to set a new standard for the franchise that will be interesting to keep track of moving forward.
As for Javier Bardem’s villain, there’s no pussyfooting around the fact that he’s easily the most chilling Bond villain ever. As a blonde haired, intriguingly sexualized funhouse mirror version of the man Bond could have easily become himself, Bardem speaks very matter of factly and with a great wit to advance his bitter agenda. Even when he’s trying to play coy or be funny, there’s never any doubt that the character means business and he means to inflict as much harm as possible. Despite not showing up in the film until about 45 minutes in, his presence is felt long before as a looming presence and his shadow is cast over everything that follows his stellar, slow paced reveal.
Everything about Skyfall is pretty much top to bottom wonderful. As is the stunning looking and sounding Blu-Ray transfer. There are two commentary tracks, but oddly the producer track with Barbara Broccoli, Michael G. Wilson and production designer Dennis Gassner holds a lot more insight and interest than Mendes’ dry solo track. There’s about an hour’s worth of featurettes broken up into parts, and a whole bunch of so-so promotional materials that would really only appeal to future marketing majors. (Andrew Parker)
The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Stephen Chbosky, 2012) – It took well over a decade for Stephen Chbosky’s seminal 1990s set young adult novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower to come to life on the big screen, and having the book’s author write and direct the finished version works quite well on an emotional level, but not entirely in terms of filmmaking. Those with fond memories of Chbosky’s high school set tale of music, depression, friendship, and alienation (like myself) will be more than happy to know that thematically and structurally the film stays true to the source material. The only real problem is that it’s apparent that Chbosky is a far more talented writer than he is a director.
Coming off a particularly rough year that saw him institutionalized for a brief period, Charlie (Logan Lerman) sets out on his first day of his Freshman year of high school still shell shocked, socially awkward, and nearly friendless. He finds kindred spirits in a pair of Seniors: the openly gay Patrick (Ezra Miller) and his stepsister Sam (Emma Watson). Charlie falls in with their core group of friends quite nicely, partying with them and taking part in Rocky Horror Picture Show performances, all while trying to figure out who he is, what to do about his puppy dog crush on Sam, and how to put the past behind him once and for all.
The themes of sexual discovery and repressed childhood memories comes through wonderfully here since Chbosky knows exactly how to convey the subtext and concepts from his novel. He even unabashedly and admirably sticks to the novel’s fetishizing of popular music and culture, something that gave his original work a lot of character that many of the novel’s fans gravitated toward. What he doesn’t quite seem to understand for the first part of the film and very fleetingly at the end was that he didn’t need to overplay chunks of the story to make it seem more cinematic.
The opening narration of the film (which comes almost word for word from the novel) takes a while to feel unforced. It never mentions outright that it’s a 1990s period piece, which means viewers sort of have to figure that out on their own if they don’t know the material. At first Patrick and Sam are shown as almost being broad stereotypes of sassy teenagers before Chbosky rights his own ship about a quarter of the way in. It also isn’t the most well shot or edited movie, but this and every other problem that can be listed can be attributed to nothing more than Chbosky being a first time feature filmmaker trying to stay true to his material while hopefully introducing it to a new generation of fans.
Helping him to sell the film’s great story are some perfectly cast actors. Lerman and Miller make it hard to envision any other actors ever playing these roles, and their relationship to one another quickly becomes the best element of the film. Watson gets dealt a bad hand at first by Chbosky who seemingly wants to turn Sam into a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but that fades away as soon as the film finds its footing and she gets to explore the character a bit more. The teens also find strong support from some big name adults in key roles, including Paul Rudd as Charlie’s sympathetic English teacher and Dylan McDermott as his father.
When Charlie’s past comes back to haunt him towards the film’s conclusion, it’s handled in truly gut wrenching fashion except for one very brief sequence that feels out of place and out of touch. It’s a moment that lasts mere seconds, but it helps to illustrate the film’s ultimate problems. It’s a great film based on a great book that stumbles every now and then. In that respect, it becomes a good example of a film made for fans of the source material. Again, that’s Chbosky aiming to be bigger and showier than he needs to be, but it never kills the pacing or weight of the proceedings. As a fan of the book, it pleased me. As a film critic, I can admit that it has some problems, but I can easily see where people can just as easily enjoy it on its own merits.
The DVD comes with two commentary tracks, one from Chbosky where he opens his heart up about the process that fans of the book will be sure to enjoy, and one with the writer/director and almost every actor who played a major role as a kid in the film that’s a bit chaotic, but still fun to listen to. There’s also some deleted scenes that fans of the book will recognize as having been missed the first time around, and a brief behind the scenes look. (Andrew Parker)
The Sessions (Ben Lewin, 2012) – Dutifully constructed as crowd pleasing awards bait with grand performances and lessons about life and love delivered by a cast of off beat characters, writer and director Ben Lewin does justice to his subject and justice to his audience, but aside from the cast itself, the movie itself doesn’t aim high enough to play well outside of its festival and arthouse trappings. That’s a shame since it has a great lead performance from John Hawkes and solid supporting work from Helen Hunt and William H. Macy that shouldn’t go unnoticed despite just how unremarkable the movie ultimately feels.
Based on the life of writer and journalist Mark O’Brien and loosely cribbed from a 1988 article he had written about his first sexual experiences, Hawkes plays the man as an extraordinary character. Confined to an iron lung for nearly his entire adult life thanks to childhood polio, O’Brien yearns for human connection after all of his intellectual pursuits have been satisfied. After having his affections rebuffed by a caretaker he grew sweet on, O’Brien turns to a sex surrogate (Hunt) to give him his first experience. O’Brien’s Catholic guilt, his fears, and his health keep getting in the way of things going smoothly.
Aside from being choppily edited and looking oddly devoid of anything approaching an interesting visual sensibility, The Sessions really suffers from only having about an hour of truly interesting material to hang its hat on. After an intriguing set up, things are mostly resolved after 60 minutes and the film devolves into something dreadfully standard and audience baiting. Instead of seeming natural and unforced, Lewin decides he wants to become melodramatic and overbearing.
That’s not to say that the film is bereft of wit or emotion. During the first hour and beyond it’s quite easy to sympathize with O’Brien and his curious partner as they try to figure out a situation that’s equally scary and different to the both of them. They have a great rapport, but Hunt has to play the more business like of the two, staying warm on the surface, but calculating and distant beneath her smile. Hunt makes a fine return to the screen here after being away for far too long in a really bold performance for her that leaves her literally naked and vulnerable for a decent chunk of the film. It’s great to have her back.
Also on board and a welcome sight is Macy as the down to Earth priest Mark confesses to. He’s the type of priest that sees morality as something working on a sliding scale, and he doesn’t so much see a crisis of faith when confronted with Mark’s sexual desires, but a chance to put a suffering man at ease. He isn’t always comfortable discussing the particulars of his arrangements, but he truly wants what’s best for this member of his flock.
But the film’s heart and soul belong to Hawkes, who was somewhat unceremoniously robbed of an Oscar nomination for his chilling work in the somewhat overrated, but undeniably well acted Martha Marcy May Marlene. One the surface, this is the kind of performance that the Academy loves and recognized time and time again. Hawkes spends almost the entire film flat on his back, nearly motionless except for his neck and head, and sporting an extremely sunken in midsection. But what sets this portrayal above a lot of the work done by some of his peers in similar roles – and equally why it’s going to be harder for him to get a nomination – is just how funny and warm he manages to be. There’s such a small part of Mark that openly looks for pity that his optimism becomes more infectious and his frustration and heartbreak are magnified. Throughout, Hawkes portrays Mark as someone who can easily look at his lot in life and smile. He still has fears and great sadness, but he never dwells on them and is extremely proactive. It seems old hat for actors to take on these kinds of roles, but Hawkes does some truly incredible work here to make the character stand out in the memory of the viewer.
That ultimately makes the movie’s near failing crap out towards the end all the more frustrating. It isn’t enough to make the film go off the rails, but to watch a film with this strong of a set up suddenly realize that it only has enough material to sustain an hour long TV show before throwing together a clichéd and unnecessarily predictable Hollywood ending is kind of a bummer. It veers off into soap opera territory quite suddenly when things start to become strained between the main pairing and the woman’s husband, and it also unnecessarily makes Mark’s illness something to propel the final act of the film when previously Lewin was doing such a good job of not making it an issue to mine manufactured emotion from. It becomes a “feel good” button pusher when the audience was already feeling good the entire time.
The Blu-Ray looks as good as a film this awkwardly shot possibly could, and the sound mix is fine, but given the small nature of the film that’s not something necessarily worth doing cartwheels over. There are a handful of great featurettes, though, including a look at how Hawkes and Hunt got into their characters and Lewin’s inspiration. There’s also some great background info on the real O’Brien, a cast interview, and some deleted scenes (Andrew Parker)
Robot & Frank (Jake Schreir, 2012) – The buddy comedy is tried and true genre is the cinematic realm, and while there’s probably nothing new to explore in that subject matter it doesn’t mean there isn’t still some fun to be had in spinning a good , high quality yarn. Robot & Frank is a deliciously sly comedy that lets us watch a highly unlikely duo former a very unique friendship.
Robot & Frank is set in the near future as it introduces us to Frank (Frank Langella), a retired cat burglar who has two grown kids (James Marsden & Liv Tyler) who are concerned he can no longer live alone. They are tempted to place him in a nursing home until Frank’s son chooses a different option: against the old man’s wishes, he buys Frank a walking, talking humanoid robot programmed to improve his physical and mental health but in ways he couldn’t have imagined as the two become fast friends and quickly form a heist team.
This story of friendship from director Jake Schreier and screenwriter Christopher D Ford in their debut feature isn’t a film without its problems but unquestionably has its heart in the right place. It moves along well enough, with a subtle yet slick near futuristic feel as Schreier hits all the basic bullets points for your standard ‘buddy movie’ while keeping any hokey or saccharine moments to a bare minimum for some solid results from top to bottom. The film delivers great messages about the fate of the written word in the future and it brings up some interesting concepts not only about books but elder care in the future as well. Instead of going a little deeper into some potential interesting issues, it purposely stays light only skimming the surface and while the results certain aren’t negative, it felt like a missed opportunity. Light and pleasant buddy comedies like this one have been known to fall apart and never really grab an audience but Christopher D Ford’s script had enough on the page to allow these actors to shine and make this film a memorable one, lead in particular by the fantastic performance of Frank Langella.
Langella, who is an incredibly steady and grossly underrated character actor does a lovely job as our hero Frank in a performance that may go down as one of his best ever. Equal parts cranky old man with a failing memory and cunning high-line cat burglar, his Frank is a vibrant and entertaining on screen character who draws you into his world with every passing frame. An especially impressive feat since he plays a fair portion of the film by himself, but you still manage to get behind his character with his charming wit and style making Frank incredibly interesting. Peter Sarsgaard plays the voice of Robot with a cold yet still tender efficiency that works so perfectly with Langella’s performance making for some excellent on screen chemistry between the two. Watching these two perform various heists, is one of the few on screen times that burglary is rather sweet and heartwarming. James Marsden and Liv Tyler play his kids, while Susan Sarandon delivers a strong turn who laments the death of the library that they both love so much, however at the end of it all it is really Langella who makes this such a charming and enjoyable film to watch.
Special features on the DVD include a feature length commentary track from director Jake Schreier and writer Christopher D Ford, as well as a photo gallery of Robot posters. (Dave Voigt)