Thursday, 22 November 2012

Skyfall (2012) Review

Last night, I put on my tux, fixed myself a martini, hopped in my Aston Martin and drove to the cinema to check out Skyfall (2012) starring Daniel Craig and directed by Sam Mendes. Don't worry, I didn't actually drink the martini.

Skyfall is the 23rd official film based on Ian Fleming's James Bond. It is Daniel Craig's third outing as the titular British spy after the groundbreaking Casino Royale and the disappointing Quantum of Solace. While those two movies were linked plotwise, this is a standalone feature.

In this film, Bond starts off chasing down a list of all the deep cover operatives in terrorist organizations around the world. The entire list was conveniently stored on a single laptop hard drive, which an enterprising young thief has stolen. A chase ensues that finds Bond accidentally shot by Eve, the agent working with him, and the thief making off with the list. Bond is presumed dead and M (his boss, played by Judi Dench) pens his obituary. Several months later, MI6 (the British intelligence agency Bond worked for) comes under attack. Bond resurfaces, very much alive, and begins the process of getting back into the spy game.

The movie starts off well. We're offered a high octane chase scene over rooftops that Christopher Nolan could've taken notes on when filming Batman Begins. The classic Bond opening is great and it's accompanied by Adele's theme for the movie, which is actually pretty good too. After that, the film focuses on Judi Dench's character M while she tries to run MI6 without Bond as well as hunting after the stolen list. In fact, Judi Dench has more to do in this Bond film than all the other Bond films she's appeared in combined. It's quite a shame it's taken this long for the filmmakers to realise what a brilliant actress she is. She is absolutely fabulous in this film. She has a steely-eyed gaze and a confidence on the screen that is second to none.

As the plot thickens, Bond makes his return much the worse for wear after spending the ensuing months drinking and screwing and god knows what else. It definitely marks a bit of a departure from most Bond films that usually have the character an invincible, infallible British Superman. Even during the action sequences, Craig doesn't look all cool and suave. If you look at his face, most of the time he just looks pissed off, which seems the right reaction when chasing a bad guy that keeps eluding you.

Bond gets introduced to a couple of new/old characters after his return. The first is Mallory, played by Ralph Fiennes. I have to say, this is a wasted role for an actor of Fiennes stature. He's fairly wooden throughout, has very little to do and, worst of all, I kept waiting for him to turn out to be the bad guy! Maybe that's my personal bias, but I've grown so accustomed to seeing him play the villian that I spent the entire movie expecting him to turn any moment. I won't spoil anything by telling you one way or the other...

The other new/old character Bond meets is Q, which I finally learned stands for Quartermaster. Q is played by Ben Whishaw and, if Fiennes is a little wooden in his role, Whishaw is positively stoic. Hardly an emotion is spared for the camera. I know these are British actors in a British film, so I'm always expecting some reserve to be displayed but, honestly, would a facial expression now and then kill you?

Bond finally tracks down the film's antagonist, Silva, played by Javier Bardem. Bardem starts out pretty cool and the interplay between him and Craig is quite good. Unfortunately, Bardem begins to come across as more and more mentally unhinged as the movie develops, leading him to begin hamming it up for the camera and playing it way over the top. I'm not sure why most actors playing a villain in a Bond movie feel they have to do this. These latest Bond films starring Craig have strived to eliminate the cheesiness of the previous installments. Bardem almost single-handedly undoes all this hard work.

Not all of this can be blamed solely on Bardem, though. Some very cliched villain mistakes get made in this movie. A good example of this is towards the end of the movie. Bond is out on a frozen lake, unarmed and completely exposed with no cover. Suddenly, two shots patter at his feet, stopping him short. Silva is 40 feet away with a gun trained on him. Bond has no means of escape or defense. What does Silva do? He shoots and kills him! The end! Roll credits! Wait, what? Oh. No, that would make sense. Instead, Silva starts to monologue while a henchman comes up behind Bond. Bond uses the henchman along with Silva's loquaciousness to escape the predictament. The villain could have shot Bond with Bond completely unaware of his presence. Instead, a warning shot and a bunch of dialogue later, Bond escapes. Sadly, Silva winds up doing the very same thing in a different situation not 10 minutes later! 

Another example of classic villain blunders that make their way into this film is having all the evil henchman shooting from a covered position, only to break cover at the moment our hero needs to shoot them. This happens so often in this film I actually found myself laughing at the result. 

Not all is bad, though. This film is absolutely gorgeous, and I mean that literally. It's beautifully shot, taking full advantage of the exotic locales. Smooth, wide, panning shots give the viewer a real sense of space, place and size.

Also present are some Bond throwbacks that were nice for nostalgia fans like myself. Of course, he introduces himself as "Bond. James Bond". While he doesn't ask for it by name, the bartender making his drink very clearly shakes it, not stirring it. At one point Bond whips the tarp off an old Aston Martin complete with ejector seats and headlight machine guns. We even get to hear the classic theme a time or two in the film. All welcome reminders that this is a franchise celebrating 50 years.

The film also did an admirable job of humanising Bond. As I said, when he comes back from his supposed death, he's in very rough shape. More than that, though, they take Bond back to his roots. We learn about his childhood and his parents. We get to see his ancestral home. We may even get to see him shed a tear or two, though I certainly won't say why here. All in all, the movie works as a character study for both Bond and M and does so brilliantly.

Some people are calling this the best Bond film to date. Some are even saying it's one of the best films of the year. I don't if I can agree with either statement. Parts of this film are truly excellent with Judi Dench absolutely stealing it for me. Others parts, like a very long, meandering second act, not so much. Still, overall, this is a good film that will keep the storied Bond franchise going for at least one more outing.

4 out of 5 stars
Skyfall (2012)
Reviewed by The Bitter Critic on Nov 22 2012
Rating: 4

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Wreck-It Ralph (2012) Review

This week, I put on my best cardigan, loaded up the mini-van and took the kids to see Wreck-It Ralph, starring John C. Reilly and directed by Rich Moore.

Wreck-It Ralph is a character in a classic video game called Fixit Felix Jr. Ralph is the bad guy who's signature phrase "I'm gonna wreck it!" starts every game. Of course, being the bad guy, Ralph finds himself face down in the mud at the end of every game. To the person playing the game, that's the end of it. To Ralph, it's just the beginning of his miserable existance. He lives in a dump while all the other characters in the game live in a lovely apartment building. Even when Ralph tries to interact with any of the other characters in the game, they shun him like the bad guy he is.

The game in which Ralph is a character, Fixit Felix Jr., is about to hit a milestone as it celebrates 30 years in the arcade. Despite attending "bad-anon" meetings where Ralph hears from other classic video game villains that being the bad guy is ok (in the words of Zangeif from Street Fighter II, "Just because you are bad guy, doesn't mean you are ..bad guy), Ralph starts to feel like he's missing out always being the bad guy. Ralph then "goes Turbo" and starts jumping into other games (a big no no), trying to prove he can be a hero as well.  

The story is a little cliched, as usual for any Disney outing, but not badly written. John C. Reilly is good as Ralph, Alan Tudyk is great as King Candy but the real star and charmer of this film is Sarah Silverman as Vanellope VonSchweet, a lovable little scamp from a racing game called Sugar Rush. I was rather intrigued when I heard Silverman was cast in a Disney film. Her standup act isn't exactly kid friendly. Still, she does a fantastic job bringing this character to life. She's cute without going overboard and becoming "Disney-cute". The movie is a tad too long and there are definitely some slow parts, but the third act is all action and everything turns out pretty much as you'd expect.

When I rate a kids movie, I usually look at two things. First, how well did my kids sit through the film without fidgeting, asking when it would be over or straight out looking to go home? Second, how often do they talk about or reference the movie once they've seen it?  For Wreck-It Ralph, my kids hung in there pretty good (my son asked "how much longer?" about an hour in when there was some plot stuff going on) and they haven't stopped shouting "I'm gonna wreck it!" since we got back. Both of these facts point to a movie that captured their attention and kept it even after it was over. Which, for me, means it was worth the small fortune I spent taking them in the first place. 

 If you're looking for a cute, endearing movie to take the kids to this weekend, you could do a lot worse than Wreck-It Ralph.

3.5 out of 5 stars
Wreck-It Ralph (2012)
Reviewed by The Bitter Critic on Nov 14 2012
Rating: 3.5