Spectre

Genre: Action, Thriller

Director: Sam Mendes

Screenplay: John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Jez Butterworth

Cast: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Lea Seydoux, Ralph Fiennes, Monica Bellucci, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Dave Bautista, Andrew Scott, Rory Kinnear, Jesper Christensen, Alessandro Cremona, Stephanie Sigman

Running Length: 148 minutes

Synopsis: A cryptic message from Bond’s (Daniel Craig) past sends him on a trail to uncover a sinister organisation. While M (Ralph Fiennes) battles political forces to keep the secret service alive, Bond peels back the layers of deceit to reveal the terrible truth behind Spectre.

Review: Given the very high bar that Skyfall had set, it was perhaps an unreasonable expectation that Spectre would outdo its predecessor, even if the production remains largely in the same hands. And while it is true that Spectre is a number of notches below Skyfall, it’s still a very decent Bond movie, and is actually more of a Bond movie than Skyfall is. It’s almost as though Sam Mendes, having broken the mould with Skyfall, had decided that his sophomore Bond effort would instead be something that comes much closer to the roots of the franchise.

Spectre opens with a (literal) bang, and minus the rather lackluster Sam Smith title song, ranks as one of the top Bond opening sequences in the franchise’s entire 53-year history. Set in Mexico on the Day of the Dead, the first five minutes is an ingeniously choreographed one-take tracking shot (mad props to Hoyte van Hoytema, who replaces Roger Deakin as DP), followed by an extended, equally stunningly orchestrated action sequence that culminates in a helicopter doing loop the loops over Zocalo Square. This is just the first of a number of great action set pieces in Spectre, and on their own makes the price of entry worthwhile.

This is Daniel Craig’s fourth appearance as James Bond, and he has firmly established himself as the best modern day Bond, handily beating out Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan by a mile in every aspect (Sean Connery is still the iconic Bond for an old Bond fan like me). However, the rest of the cast simply fail to measure up, with both Bond girls Monica Belluci and Lea Seydoux lacking chemistry with Craig, and Christoph Waltz being particularly flat and uninspired as uber-villain Franz Oberhauser. Surprisingly, it’s the minor cast members that make more of an impression, none more so than Ben Whishaw’s expanded appearance as Q, and Andrew Scott’s detestable turn as government bigwig Max Denbigh.

Unlike Skyfall, there’s never a sense that anything is really at stake in Spectre, and it’s hard to be vested in any facet of the film, especially since the conclusion of any Bond film is a foregone one. It is somewhat surprising that Spectre isn’t pared down to a more manageable length, since the near two and a half hour running time does no favours to the film, and I found my interest flagging a little at times. There is definitely enough going on to not make the film feel like a bore, but it almost feels as though Mendes and crew got a bit lost along the way in an attempt to pull out all the stops for the film.

This is rumoured to be Daniel Craig’s last outing as Bond, and in a way that may not matter, since Spectre manages to wrap up the four-movie story arc quite nicely. It would not be surprising if this film becomes the end of yet another era, and a seventh actor will step up to take the mantle in the 25th Bond film. Although this isn’t the best Bond film in the Daniel Craig era, it will still be a decent swansong for the actor, and a tough act for the next James Bond to follow.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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Contagion * * *

Genre: Thriller

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Writer: Scott Z. Burns

Cast: Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Jennifer Ehle, Kate Winslet

Running Length: 105 minutes

Synopsis: Contagion follows the rapid progress of a lethal airborne virus that kills within days. As the fast moving epidemic grows, the worldwide medical community races to find a cure and control the panic that spreads faster than the virus itself. At the same time, ordinary people struggle to survive in a society coming apart.

Review: if not for the multitude of A-list stars that populate this movie, it would be easy to mistake Contagion to be a documentary of a real virus outbreak. The trailer may lead one to believe that this is a melodramatic, high-octane thriller, but the truth is quite far removed from that. This is a controlled, meticulously filmed movie that almost feels like a reality program, and the extent to which it potentially mirrors real life is rather disturbing to say the least.

Soderbergh is one of the most versatile directors of our time, and although the multi-prong structure is something that he had already explored (with great success) in Traffic, the complex narrative in Contagion is still a welcome change from the current norm. The screenplay by Scott Z. Burns runs the gamut, covering personal, familial life to much broader national and global perspectives, and yet manages to marry most of them together pretty well. There are almost no melodramatic moments in Contagion, but the film cuts so close to home that it is more gripping and disconcerting than any action-thriller that I have seen in a long while.       

With the amount of talent on hand, it’s not difficult to find at least a couple of great performances in Contagion. Matt Damon is quietly effective as the grieving husband and overprotective father, and both Kate Winslet and Marion Cotillard are highly memorable in the handful of scenes they feature in. The standout, however, is Jennifer Ehle, whose portrayal of the fearless Dr Ally Haskell is one of the most dimensional, and easily becomes one of the emotional centres of the film that many audience members would identify with.

This isn’t a perfect film by any measure – it does begin to lose steam in its final reel, and with the many varied storylines and characters it was only natural that a few of the subplots feel unfinished even when the credits roll. It may probably have been better to have left some parts out – the Jude Law component to me felt particularly superfluous – but as a whole this is a very absorbing movie, and one that will definitely leave you with much food for thought (and reaching for the hand sanitizer).

Rating: *** (out of four stars)

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Black Swan * * *

Genre: Thriller 

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Writers: Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin

Cast: Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder

Running Length: 107 minutes

Synopsis: Nina Sawyer (Natalie Portman) is a ballerina in a New York City ballet company whose entire life revolves around dance. She still lives with her obsessive and oppressive former ballerina mother Erica (Barbara Hershey), who smothers her with attention and control. When the company’s artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) decides to replace prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder) for the opening production of their new season, Swan Lake, Nina becomes his first choice. However, newcomer Lily (Mila Kunis) is a potential threat as Leroy is impressed with her as well. Swan Lake requires a dancer who can play both the White Swan and the Black Swan, and whilst the innocent Nina is a perfect White Swan, the bohemian Lily is the perfect personification of the Black Swan. As Nina struggles to expand her abilities to become both Swans, she gets in touch with her dark side, but this is not without consequences.  

Review: If your purpose of watching a movie is to relax and enjoy yourself, Black Swan should definitely stay off your to-watch list. This is an intense psychological thriller that makes for largely uneasy viewing, since the film is essentially about a young ballerina who descends into madness. Aronofsky may have moved from the more violent world of wrestling to the seemingly more docile art form of ballet, but the film suggests that high art may just be as much of a bloodsport. For those who have the stomach for it, however, will find that Black Swan boasts a number of excellent performances, even if the film itself lacks a little finesse and subtlety.

As the film is told from the perspective of Nina, it’s a fractured take on reality, and the lines between her troubled imagination and the real world are blurred considerably. Aronofsky is intentionally oblique when crossing between the two realities, and this does add an interesting dimension to the film. The audience is left guessing about what is real and what isn’t, and even the conclusion of the film is somewhat open-ended. Where Aronofsky fumbles is his insistence on bashing the audience over the head with his light/dark themes, repeatedly using different characters as mouthpieces to reinforce the black swan / white swan dichotomy. It almost borders on self parody and is one of the reasons why the screenplay didn’t work entirely for me.

Much like The King’s Speech, the best thing about Black Swan is the performances found within. Natalie Portman, in particular, puts forth a tour de force turn as the troubled protagonist, and it is easy to tell she had literally poured her heart and soul into bringing Nina to life, warts and all. Portman also underwent months of intensive dance training to prepare for the role, and Aronofsky had stated that much of the dancing in the movie is performed by Portman herself, and the body double coming into play only in wider shots. It is little wonder that Portman is the frontrunner for acting nominations this awards season, and it is deservedly so. Mila Kunis also deserves kudos for her portrayal as the free spirited Lily, and because her character is viewed through Nina’s eyes, she has to inhabit a number of wide-ranging personas all of which Kunis manages to nail.

It may be unflattering to compare Black Swan to roadkill, but the comparison is an apt one. This is a largely unattractive take on ballet, a drastic departure from many similarly-themed movies. Whilst the movie takes itself too seriously despite some rather eye-roll worthy plot points – a similarly crazed ex-prima donna? A controlling, smothering mother straight out from the Mommy Dearest handbook? – there’s a magnetic quality about the film that makes you unable to tear your eyes away. Imperfect as it is, Black Swan makes for very compelling viewing.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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The Tourist * * 1/2

Genre: Drama / Thriller

Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck 

Writers: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck and Christopher McQuarrie and Julian Fellowes, based on the motion picture Anthony Zimmer by Jerome Salle

Cast: Johnny Depp, Angelina Jolie, Paul Bettany, Timothy Dalton, Steven Berkoff, Rufus Sewell

Running Length: 103 minutes

Synopsis: Frank Tupelo (Johnny Depp), an American tourist in Europe who is en route to Venice, chances a meeting with Elise Ward (Angelina Jolie), a mysterious but ravishing British belle. Unbeknownst to Frank, Elise had engineered the meeting to throw her pursuers off the scent of her lover who had stolen a huge sum of money from mobsters. Frank is gradually led into a web of intrigue, romance and danger as his involvement with Elise deepens, and a deadly game of cat and mouse ensues.

Review: Released earlier this month in the US, The Tourist received an overwhelmingly negative critical reception, and didn’t fare so well at the box office either. This may point to The Tourist being a terrible movie, but I found that apart from the really farfetched plot, the film is sufficiently entertaining as a glossy, leave-your-brain-at-the-door thriller, starring two of the biggest movie stars in the world and set amidst breathtaking scenery. In other words, it’s an escapist film that’s perfect for the holiday season. No Oscar glory for sure, but perfectly serviceable as a two hour diversion.

Both Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp have proven in other films that they have plenty of thespian talent, but this is not on show in The Tourist. Angelina Jolie is paid to look, well, like Angelina Jolie, and she of course does this with supreme ease. Dressed in fancy couture and dripping with jewellery, her role in the movie almost seems to be making one red carpet appearance after another. Depp, on the other hand, dials down his sex appeal, giving a very by-the-numbers portrayal of a bumbling American tourist with a heart of gold. Depp does seem to be a bit bored by the role but not to the extent of looking like he’s dialing in his performance. While the two individual performances can’t be faulted much, the chemistry that should be present between the two leads is strangely lacking.

The Tourist is also quite a preposterous film, filled to the brim with movie clichés, and plot twists so telegraphed that you could spot them from miles away. Even the obligatory action sequences are crippled somewhat – there’s never a sense that any of the leads are in any form of true danger, and their characterization is so thin that it’s hard to feel vested for their survival.

Yet in spite of all this, The Tourist works. The gorgeous Venetian scenery is flawless, thanks to veteran cinematographer John Seale, and if one doesn’t question the plot too much, this really is quintessential cinematic fluff – not a hundred percent satisfactory, but good enough to not make it feel like a waste of time. Could it have been a better film? Sure – given the pedigree of almost everyone involved, it almost feels like a crime that the outcome is so decidedly average, but that doesn’t make The Tourist any worse when judged on its own merits.

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of four stars)

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The Town * * * 1/2

Genre: Drama / Thriller

Director: Ben Affleck

Writers: Peter Craig and Ben Affleck & Aaron Stockard, based on the novel Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan

Cast: Ben Affleck, Rebecca Hall, Jeremy Renner, Jon Hamm, Blake Lively

Running Length: 125 minutes

Synopsis: The film is set in Charlestown, Boston which apparently is the “bank robbery capital of North America”, and said “trade” is passed down from generation to generation like a family business. Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck) is from one such family, and his father Stephen (Chris Cooper) is currently serving a life sentence in prison for murders associated with a robbery that went wrong. Doug himself runs a crew, which includes his best friends – James Coughlin (Jeremy Renner), Gloansy Magloan (Slaine) and Desmond Elden (Owen Burke). Doug is the brains of the operation whilst Coughlin is the unpredictable, violent one. In their latest heist, Coughlin takes the bank manager, Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall) hostage, but is subsequently released, having never seen the robbers’ faces. However, when Doug tracks her down to ascertain that she can’t offer any helpful information to the police, he finds himself becoming attracted to her. In the mean time, the FBI is hot on the trail of the robbers, led by special agent Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm). Frawley doesn’t have enough evidence to land a conviction yet, but he is determined to put a stop to the robbers’ crime spree, preferably by catching them red handed.

Review: The trailers for The Town may have been somewhat misleading – they give the impression that this is heist film that is filled with action sequences, but in reality The Town is more a character drama with some well-placed and effectively executed action set pieces. This is a handsome, atmospheric movie filled to the brim with great acting from the ensemble cast, and a storyline that will keep most audiences engrossed throughout its two-hour running time.

Ben Affleck deserves major kudos, his sophomore directorial effort being almost as well done as his first (Gone Baby Gone). As a director, he has managed to capture the nuances of every major character in the film, and it’s truly a pleasure to observe action set pieces filmed with a steady hand, without the usual (nowadays) quick cuts and rapid edits that has plagued many an action film in recent years.

In front of the camera, Affleck also manages to acquit himself very well. His measured performance, whilst not the strongest in the film (that credit would have to be given to Jeremy Renner’s ferocious performance), makes Doug MacRay a character that audiences will have no trouble vesting their interest in. What’s probably even more surprising is that the romance between Doug and Claire is very believable, when this aspect of a heist movie is usually its weakest link.

What is the film’s weak link, unfortunately, is the climactic heist, which really is a little too preposterous for its own good. Also, for a film that seems intent to keep the volume dial down, the overreliance on firepower in this last sequence feels just a little out of place. There’s no denying, however, that this is a solidly entertaining dramatic thriller, and it proves that Ben Affleck isn’t a flash in the pan when it comes to his directorial skills.

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)

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Buried * * * *

Genre: Thriller

Director: Rodrigo Cortes

Writer: Chris Sparling

Cast: Ryan Reynolds

Running Length: 94 minutes

Synopsis: Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) is an American working in Iraq as a non-military truck driver. Unfortunately, his convoy comes under attack and he blacks out; when he comes to, Paul discovers that he is buried alive in a wooden coffin. Fortunately, Paul discovers that he has, amongst other items, a lighter, a pencil, and a working mobile phone with half its battery life and a weak reception. Using the mobile phone, Paul desperately tries to make connections with anyone that can help him out of his predicament, but not everyone he manages to contact with the phone have his best interests at heart…

Review: It is perhaps not surprising that this movie, though starring Ryan Reynolds, was birthed not in the USA but in Spain. Very few movies made in the USA would have the audacity to try to accomplish what Rodrigo Cortes has tried to do here, but what’s even more impressive is that it works. Buried is not an easy film to watch, and it might not be even considered an entertaining film, but it manages to present its single-minded proposition with such clarity and purpose that it is impossible not to feel impressed. Rodrigo Cortes has done an amazing job (although I question his choice of denouement), and Ryan Reynolds manages to put forth what is probably his best performance to date.

Unlike most movies founded on similar “locked room” concepts (Devil is a recent example), Buried never shifts its focus from the coffin and devotes the full 94-minute running time to Ryan Reynolds and the box he is trapped in. There are no flashbacks to fill out the story, no other peripheral characters on screen (although a fair number of characters are heard via Paul’s many phone conversations), and perhaps most surprisingly, no situations that don’t work in the film’s internal logic. The film’s plot feels watertight even after the credits roll, which is quite a rare occurrence these days.

Rodrigo Cortes manages to avoid visual monotony by offering up a surprising number of camera angles and introducing new plot elements just when the film seems to settle into a comfortable (relatively) groove. This creates an excellent atmosphere for the film, and the pacing is spot on, relentlessly piling on the sense of dread, never letting up till the very end.

Ryan Reynolds is perhaps better known for his pretty boy looks and his excellent physique, but in Buried he actually puts forth a very strong performance. This being literally a one-man show, Reynolds carries the entire weight of the movie on his shoulders and yet manages to do so with great aplomb. This is not an easy role – he is confined to a small space and yet has to portray a wide gamut of emotions, ranging from fear to anger to resignation. And because Reynolds’ portrayal is so believable, it is very easy to identify with and have a vested interest in his character’s fate. 

Buried is a very intense cinematic experience which honestly isn’t for everyone – if you’re looking for the typical action thriller movie then this would not fit neatly into the mould. However, if you are willing to give the movie a chance, this could possibly be one of the best movies you’ll see this year. Even if you don’t agree, be assured that this will not be a movie that you will forget anytime soon, and in a sea of same-old, me-too movies, that in itself is a quality that’s increasingly hard to find in the theatres nowadays.

Rating:  * * * * (out of four stars)

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