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After a four year hiatus, James Bond is back in Skyfall, and it’s terrific. Some early critics have been effusing it’s the “best Bond ever!” and you may think so. To my taste, it’s not quite up to the level of Casino Royale, the 2006 reboot that introduced Daniel Craig as 007, but it’s easily one of the top five films in 50 years of the franchise, and I’ll gladly see it again just to make sure.
Though it follows the familiar Bond formula in many ways – big opening action sequence, impossible mission, diabolical supervillian, series of lovely conquests, clever quips and bon(d) mots, “Bond. James Bond,” explosive finish – the movie manages to put a fresh take on many of the old standbys and is also full of good twists and unexpected directions, none of which I’ll spoil here. Instead we’ll just explore what works and the few things that don’t, particularly as they fit inside the Bond canon.
First and most notably, Skyfall the best-acted James Bond picture ever, without question, which is a big plus because there are definitely a few potentially clunky points where the script needs Shakespearean-level talent to pull it off. Craig is the right man at the right time for the role, pretty much everybody agrees on that, and Judy Dench, as Bond’s icy boss M since 1995 (and Pierce Bronsan), has deservedly won tons of awards and recognition for turns far tougher than this one. But new additions like Ralph Fiennes as a merciless British national security bureaucrat, the charming Ben Whitshaw as a young and geeky Q, and Albert Finney as a codger from Bond’s past, ratchet up the thespian levels to pretty much ridiculous heights.
Out of the trio of women Bond beds (or maybe doesn’t), two of them are genuine actresses. My pick would be Naomi Harris, as a tough and independent MI6 counterpart, but she gets the better role than femme fatale Bérénice Marlohe, who nevertheless is a notch above the usual and shares one terrific scene with Craig at a bar inside an Asian casino.
Best of all though, is Javier Bardem, who seems to be having the time of his life as the bad guy, a nihilistic computer genius with motives both global and personal. Bardem just oozes diabolical charm, and he’s magnetic onscreen. He also makes the best entrance of any villain in a Bond movie I can recall, maybe one of the best entrances of any bad guy ever, walking towards the camera in a long static shot as he weaves an increasingly depraved tale that serves as metaphor for his motivations.
It’s quieter moments like this where Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Revolutionary Road – can you believe it?!) earns his pay, because the scene is absolutely mesmerizing. In fact, almost all the best bits in Bond this go round are quieter, human moments – verbal skirmishes instead of shootouts, full of tension and suspense.
It’s the action payoffs that don’t quite deliver (with a couple exceptions). They’re not bad, fun to watch, competently shot and spectacularly executed, and Craig is clearly doing his own stunts in a lot of them, which is a bonus (let’s all remember Roger Moore and his ubiquitous green screen. Or not). But most of the slam-bam sequences that the masses come for don’t create the exhilarating, heart-thumping adrenaline surge of vicarious thrill. Two exceptions: The unbelievably elaborate and fast-paced opening chase and fight sequence, which moves from foot to motorcycle to train, in ever-escalating action and tension. Later, there’s a long and brutal fight scene filmed entirely in silhouette that has got to be among the most creatively shot one-on-one combat scenes in movie history. Nothing else comes close to those two, though, including an overlong climax that feels more like perfunctory than payoff (the far more human postscripts are far more satisfying, again).
This is a smart movie, made by smart and extremely talented people, so I’m mystified by a few really dumb moments that I can’t believe didn’t get rewritten, including the afore-mentioned clunky dialogue (in spots – other times, the script crackles), and one really stupid sequence with a flashlight. And since this is the 50th Anniversary entry – the first, Dr. No, debuted in 1962 – there are numerous visual, plot, and other sly references to previous pictures in the series; I found some of them clever and natural, others a bit forced.
But otherwise, Skyfall is popular action adventure entertainment of the highest order. It’s a vital addition to a half-century old Hollywood brand, as immediate and contemporary as it ever was. Bravo. (***1/2)
Director Yaron Zilberman beautifully articulates a shared experience through the lives of musicians in A Late Quartet, a soulful hymn to the power of music that doubles as an actor’s dream project. Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Mark Ivanir and Imogen Poots star in this beautiful, deep movie that makes your heart want to weep.
The film follows the perplex tune of the T.S. Eliot poem "The Four Quartets,” read in the opening scene: “the end precedes the beginning / And the end and the beginning were always there / Before the beginning and after the end.” As the story progresses, it reveals the lives of four professional musicians that have shared more than twenty years performing as a world-renowned string quartet. Passion and tremendous personal sacrifice resonate throughout the narrative, as artists struggle with mutual respect, adapting their art, unconditional love, and an uncertain future as the music that defines their identity is suddenly stripped away when Parkinson's disease strikes one of the four.
Swirling from beginning to end are romantic ideals, the essence of harmony, and above all else, a passion for unflawed classical execution that makes each member of the quartet, in the end, stronger. This is a beautiful and graceful work of art that loves music and communicates that love with heartbreaking effectiveness. I loved it, too. (****) – Hannah Cheadle
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