Wednesday, 14 November 2012

'Skyfall', 'Argo' and 'Rust and Bone': review round-up

'Skyfall' - Dir. Sam Mendes (12A)
By far the glossiest looking Bond film to date, this 50th anniversary edition of the spy series arguably brings top tier talent behind the camera for the first time - with an Academy Award winning director in Sam Mendes and the legendary Roger Deakins serving as DP. The result is something very pretty indeed and a film in which London - so often centre of attention in this Olympic year - is made to look especially cool. This seems to be the chief aim of 'Skyfall': to celebrate Bond as a British icon, and by extension celebrate Blighty. It's the first of the current Daniel Craig led series to be made in the coalition era and, perhaps not incidentally, it's a very conservative movie - which frequently invites us to look backwards.

In some ways this is harmless, as we're expected to coo at the screen return of a vintage car or an old character (inventor Q returns to the series, played by Ben Whishaw). Yet in other ways this is more insidious as the series to some extent jettisons the sensitive and fully-featured Bond of the past two instalments - the one who lost the love of his life in 'Casino Royale' and then went on a revenge mission in the derided 'Quantum of Solace' - in favour of a return to a Bond who makes glib jokes as a women he's recently bedded is killed. Yes, in the traditional style, once Bond beds the bad guy's woman she no longer has anything to offer the narrative and her only recourse is to serve as an example of how ruthless the big baddie is. Whishaw's Q - who seems to be channelling Moss from 'The I.T Crowd' - makes a self-aware joke at one point that the series has grown-up beyond exploding pens and other extreme gadgets. What a pity the sexual politics of old was not thought equally out of date.

In any case, that's Bond for you I guess. If it seems churlish to complain that a Bond movie falls in-line with long-established Bond conventions, I only do it because the series did seem to be taking a conscious step in another direction before this reversal. In fact, by the end of 'Skyfall' the series traditional status quo - and with it oak panelled patriarchy - is fully restored. One bright spot though is the appearance of Javier Bardem as the villain of the piece. Bardem is magnetic in every scene and brings out the best in the material. His mode of speech and every subtle mannerism is interesting and makes the film worth watching even for self-confessed non-fans like me.

'Argo' - Dir. Ben Affleck (15)
Following on from the enjoyably meat and potatoes, Michael Mann-lite crime movie 'The Town' and his Clint Eastwood-like directorial debut 'Gone Baby Gone', Ben Affleck has now turned in an entirely effective political thriller in the mode of the late Sidney Lumet. The actor-turned-director still hasn't really displayed any particular style of his own behind the camera, but it doesn't really matter in this instance because everything about 'Argo' is at least solid, often going some way beyond that. In fact, for the last hour, it's incredibly tense and terrifically well-paced, leading to the sort of air-punching, applause baiting finale usually reserved for fight movies.

Based on a true and recently declassified story, 'Argo' is about a marverick, young CIA operative (Affleck sporting a nice beard) who creates an elaborate cover in order to sneak into Tehran and rescue six American embassy staffers as they wait in hiding during the hostage crisis of 1979-81. The six had escaped the embassy during the takeover and are hidden in the residence of the Canadian ambassador, however it is only a matter of time before the authorities discover that they are missing and begin to search for them. With the clock ticking, Affleck comes up with "the best bad idea we have" - deciding to try and sneak the six out of the country posing as a Canadian feature film crew scouting for a location for a science fiction epic called Argo.

In order to make the cover realistic however, Affleck has to journey to Hollywood and gather interest in the film - getting a script and storyboards done, as well as attaching a special effects guy (John Goodman) and a big-shot producer (Alan Arkin). This makes for some neat, affectionate satire of the film industry and some pretty decent comic relief which helps to relieve the sometimes unbearable tension of the action taking place in Iran. Roundly superb performances (Bryan Cranston is in it, fagodsakes) and a humanistic attitude to the whole crisis, with attention paid to the complex history of the rift between Iran and the US, 'Argo' is the sort of smart and gripping thriller you didn't think they made anymore.

'Rust and Bone' - Dir. Jacques Audiard (15)
Following on from the over-praised prison drama 'Un Prophete', French director Jacques Audiard takes a change of direction to tell this rather more compelling and left-field story about the redemptive power of love. Here Marion Cotillard's double amputee regains her lust for life after embarking a complex relationship with Matthias Schoenaerts' uncouth, selfish part-time doorman and wannabe prize fighter - an errant father and petty criminal. It's the story of two lost souls finding their way in the world together and complimenting each other perfectly, seemingly against the odds. The most appealing thing about 'Rust and Bone' is that Audiard doesn't judge his characters, in spite of their doing some pretty horrible things from time to time. They are wounded and troubled people, but not caricatures and this makes their finding solace in each other all the more powerful.

In fact there is something bitter-sweet about their relationship as it seems born, to some extent, of compromise and circumstances. They have fallen into this partnership together because neither's life has gone as planned and that's sort of sad, albeit in an extremely mundane way. That is until the ending, which seems to artificially rectify the situation with a change of fate that doesn't feel foreshadowed or particularly warranted. Perhaps the film's final moments are an ultimate tribute to the transformational and life-affirming nature of having love in your heart - and that's a very nice sentiment - but it still rings false as a piece of storytelling.

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