James Bond is a creature of habit, and until the producers reinvented things with Daniel Craig’s series reboot, the films were almost as predictable. Most followed templates that made them indistinguishable apart from different actors playing villains or Bond himself. Craig’s two films bucked tradition to some extent, to great effect in the excellent Casino Royale and to lesser returns in 2008’s Quantum of Solace. But with Skyfall, the series does something fascinating by continuing the Craig movies’ tendency to break with tradition while simultaneously returning many of the traditions to the fold. So we see here the return of Bond’s nonchalant wisecracks, largely absent from the previous two, but never as corny as they were in the hands of, say, Roger Moore. We also see the return of Bond as a suave ladies’ man, a strategy that works when he seduces a fellow agent though is a little icky when he slips into a shower with a woman who we’ve just found out was sold into sex slavery during adolescence. We also get a Bond villain with a typically serpentine and implausible scheme, yet it works, largely due to the manic intensity of Javier Bardem’s performance.
Director Sam Mendes and the film’s writers take a sly, deconstructionist approach to Bond, making M (Judi Dench) an integral part of the plot instead of just a character giving Bond his orders; giving 007 a richer backstory than ever before; and managing to include expected moments like the shaken-not-stirred martini without obliging him to utter the line. One recently absent Bond staple is also revealed in the film’s final moments, with completely transparent crowd-pandering glee, but it’s done with such obvious love for tradition that it works in spite of the winking delivery. Combine all this with a climactic sequence that is hands-down the best, most gorgeously shot, and most breathtakingly thrilling in the franchise’s history and a welcome return of UK patriotism to a series that, despite being about a British agent, for many years pandered to its US audiences, and this is among the most satisfying and well-made entries in the franchise’s 50-year history.
Steven Spielberg’s long-in-the-making film about our 16th president finally arrives this fall with high expectations, an all-star cast, and the same sort of Oscar buzz that accompanied last autumn’s ultimately disappointing War Horse. But Lincoln succeeds where Spielberg’s last work failed, eschewing the saccharine sentimentality of that work in favor of a tough warts-and-all approach to the material. Don’t get me wrong, there are still some overly reverential passages with a swelling John Williams score, but more often, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner’s story concentrates on the less savory details of what Lincoln had to do behind closed doors to manage to pass the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery through a combative and reluctant House of Representatives. That meant bribes, impeachable offenses, and what amounted to the willful prolonging of the war, and one feels the weight and difficulty of each of those decisions in the extraordinary performance of Daniel Day-Lewis as the president, less a feat of acting than a resurrection of the man himself. If Day-Lewis is somewhere in there, he’s impossible to see—this is just Lincoln, and while the film itself suffers from a little too much ambition at times, his performance is flawless.
French director Leos Carax hasn’t directed a feature since 1999’s Pola X, and apparently there have been a lot of ideas floating around in his head since then. It appears he’s tried to stuff every single one into his latest, the surreal carnival ride that is Holy Motors. On the surface, the structure is simple: Frequent Carax collaborator the chameleonic Denis Lavant rides around Paris in a huge white stretch limo, going to appointments that call for him to don elaborate makeup and costuming in order to act out little scenes all over the city. Who is handing out these assignments is unclear, and as the film goes on, it becomes quickly apparent that this is occurring in nothing resembling what we would think of as the real world. The easy analysis is that the film acts as a lengthy metaphor for the art of acting and filmmaking, as Lavant’s character goes through seemingly a full career’s worth of characters and off-duty difficulties during the course of a single day. But there are also frequent nods to film history, little looks at our expectations of different genres, and musings on identity and agency. Things get progressively crazier, with metaphor and references layered thickly on top of one another until they nearly overwhelm. This is a film that not only demands repeat viewings but also makes that an attractive proposition. While the description might make this sound like a heady art film, it’s also wildly entertaining, engagingly bizarre, and frequently filled with absurd hilarity. Clear your head of any expectations going in, because it’s impossible to anticipate exactly what Carax has created here.
One of the most anticipated annual events at the AFI is the European Union Showcase, in which the theater, with the support of many local embassies and the EU Delegation, compiles many of the most acclaimed European films of the past year, including many festival award winners, and often a number of films that are countries’ official submissions to the Academy Awards for consideration for Best Foreign Film. In that latter category this year are the submissions from Germany (Barbara), the Czech Republic (In the Shadow), Hungary (Just the Wind), Australia (Lore), Slovakia (Made in Ash), Estonia (Mushrooming), Belgium (Our Children), and Greece (Unfair World). Other highlights include Jacques Audiard’s highly anticipated Rust and Bone, starring Marion Cotillard; a thriller from the UK about the IRA, starring Clive Owen, Shadow Dancer; a French biopic of Pierre-Auguste Renoir; Bill Murray’s turn as FDR in Hyde Park on Hudson; and finally tomorrow’s opening-night film, Quartet, which is Dustin Hoffman’s first film as a director. All told there are more than 40 films on the program over the next couple of weeks.
View the trailer for Quartet, tomorrow
night’s opening night film.
Opens tomorrow night at the AFI and continues through
November 20. Check the
for a complete listing of movies and showtimes and to
Mass audiences are most familiar with Chris Marker through one degree of separation, via Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys, a film that’s loosely adapted from Marker’s 1962 experimental classic, La Jetée. The director, whose extensive résumé extends to other experimental works such as that film, plus documentaries, essay films, writings, photography, and more, passed away this summer at the age of 91. In tribute to his life and work, the National Gallery is screening a two-part retrospective of five of the director’s films. The day after Thanksgiving, they’ll screen his two best-known works, La Jetée and his 1983 essay film on the nature of memory, Sans Soleil. But this weekend they start with three somewhat-less-often-screened selections: the working class political commentary of 1968’s À bientôt, j’espère; a late work that combines Marker’s longtime fascination with cats with a look at the purpose of street art, 2004’s Case of the Grinning Cat; and finally a very short film that continues the cat theme, the three-minute 1990 Cat Listening to Music, featuring his own cat, Guillaume-en-Egypte, which he also often used as an avatar of himself.
View the trailer for Case of the Grinning Cat. Sunday at 4:30 PM at the National Gallery
of Art, with a second program the day after Thanksgiving at 3 PM. Free.
Blu-ray/DVD Pick of the Week: Your Sister’s Sister
Director Lynn Shelton’s latest feature takes the stuff of generic romantic comedy, and transforms it into something far more satisfying. The film stars Mark Duplass (as Jack) and Rosemarie DeWitt (as Hannah) as two sad sacks who’ve recently gone through major losses in their lives (his brother has died, her girlfriend has dumped her), who both turn up at a cabin in the woods to get away from their grief for a little while. The triangle is completed by Emily Blunt (Iris), who has invited Jack to use her family’s cabin without realizing her sister Hannah was going to show up. Jack’s in love with Iris, but sleeps with Hannah after a night of drinking, and both are mortified when Iris shows up the next morning. That sounds like a badly formulaic setup, but Shelton uses the skills of her excellent cast to improvise much of the movie’s dialogue, allowing for a more natural development of the story than the usual blandness of the genre.
To read more about the use of improvised dialogue in the film, check out my piece in the Atlantic from back in June.
Special Features: Two commentary tracks, one with Shelton and Duplass, and one with Shelton and some other crew members.