Weekend Movies: “Skyfall,” “Lincoln,” and the EU Film Showcase

The new James Bond installment is one of the best in the franchise, and Spielberg’s Lincoln biopic is also a treat.
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall. Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures.
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall. Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures.


Skyfall

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.

View the trailer. Opens tomorrow at theaters
across the area.


Lincoln

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.

View the trailer. Opens tomorrow at Bethesda
Row
 and
a couple of other area theaters,
and expands to many more next Friday.


Holy Motors

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.

View the trailer. Opens tomorrow at E
Street Cinema
.

European Union Film Showcase

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
schedule
for a complete listing of movies and showtimes and to
purchase tickets.


Chris Marker: A Tribute

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.

View the trailer.

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