Raymond Soltysek's Blog

In need of a doctor: “Skyfall” (and some other films)

Posted in film review by raymondsoltysek on November 17, 2012

You Know Who…

Let’s get the positives out of the way: I like Daniel Craig’s reinterpretation of Bond, and he may well be my favourite. Yes, he lacks the heartless suave charm of the cruellest Bond of all, most people’s favourite Sean Connery; but Craig’s dour, blank, troubled soul is probably more appropriate to a world which understands psychopathy and post traumatic stress disorder. He’s also the most physical of all, someone whose animal indestructibility you really can believe and yet whose vulnerability – so brilliantly realised in that torture scene in “Casino Royale” – is the perfect flip side.

I also like the way that physicality has nudged to the side all the gadgets, a tendency that reached the pits with the invisible Aston in“Die Another Day”. There is a problem, though, in the anachronism of reintroducing the ejector-seated Aston from “Goldfinger” back into “Skyfall”;  just whose car is it, given that Craig hadn’t been born at the time of its first outing?

I also like the succession planning of “Skyfall”, ensuring a continuity that was never catered for in previous films, complete with the prospect of more of the lovely Naomie Harris; one can never have enough Naomie Harris in a film, I think.

As Bond films go, there are real strengths. The opening chase has rightly been applauded, and the lair of bad guy Silva – filmed on the deserted island of Hashima off the coast of Japan – is stunningly and eerily beautiful. But – in many ways – it’s the messiest Bond film for a long while, and I can’t help feeling that a visit from a competent script doctor might have saved it from some appalling weaknesses.

Firstly, there’s the baddie. Javier Bardem is a fantastic actor, but here he’s given a script that underuses him pathetically. Before we meet him, he is effectively set up by his sex slave Bérénice Marlohe as a man to be feared more than any Bond has ever met: “Can you kill him?” she asks desperately in a scene in a Macau casino that is really well done in the emotional claustrophobia it creates. So, anticipation is high.

The reality, though, is a let down, and there is never any sense of danger when he’s in the room. Silva, an ex-agent betrayed by M, is nothing more than a petulant schoolboy out for a little payback  (he calls M, “Mother”) and his motivation therefore lacks any grandeur, any sense of the operatic that Bond villains really need. “We’re under attack,” says M, an attack that consists of one slightly underwhelming explosion at the top of the MI6 building and the assassination of 3 agents. What happened to taking over the world?

In addition, nothing is made of the horror of his betrayal other than a prosthetic device he removes for a little bit of gratuitous freakery that asks us to believe that potassium cyanide has destroyed his upper palate and cheekbones but has somehow left his tongue intact so that he can speak.

But it’s the whole central section of the plot that is just preposterous. Apparently, it rests on the notion that Silva allowed himself to be caught, knowing he would be taken to an underground base in London from which he knew he could escape through the tunnels of the London Underground where he could catch a Tube train through Central London so he and two accomplices could shoot their way into the palace of Westminster to kill M. This, apparently, is a plan, Q tells us, he must have been hatching for years.

Now, even as I watched it, I found myself asking so many questions. Years in advance, how did he know that he would be taken to this location? And if he knew he would be, and if he could control computers by remote to open up his cell, why did he have to wait until M had left the building before he escaped in order to kill her? Indeed, given he can track her at will, why not attack her at a time when she’s not protected by the Secret Service and armed Metropolitan Police?

Years in advance, how did he know that M would be called before a Parliamentary committee he would have to reach via the Underground, where he has had accomplices waiting for him with a disguise? How long have those accomplices been waiting there, given that he has had no way of contacting them during his incarceration? Years?

And how did he know exactly where to plant a bomb that would threaten to drop a Tube train on Bond’s head? How did he know – years in advance, remember – that Bond would be standing right there at that precise time just as the 10.14 to Earl’s Court thundered overhead?

And if Bond was so essential to the plan, why try to kill Bond in the Macau casino? What if those henchmen had succeeded? No meeting on the island, no signal to British Intelligence, no faked capture. Indeed, it’s a plan that depends on Bond surviving being shot off the top of a moving train and disappearing for months, a plan that depends on Bond returning to and being passed fit for active service, a plan that depends on Bond being in a Shanghai skyscraper to witness an assassination and survive a fight with the killer.  This isn’t a plan, it’s a series of unfathomably lucky coincidences.

And, at the end of the day, it’s a plan that would have fallen to shit if the Tube had been on strike that day.

It’s that section that just spoils the whole film because it doesn’t treat me as a thinking adult capable of following anything like the logic of a plot; it assumes that I’ll happily disengage my brain cells for a bit of flash and noise. It’s something the Bourne series doesn’t do, and the recent “Bourne Legacy” – with the excellent Jeremy Renner, growing in stature as an action hero after his brilliance in “The Hurt Locker”, and Mrs Craig Rachel Weisz – was a model of careful, intricate plotting. If the new Bond series borrowed its physicality and sense of realism from Bourne, it needs to do something about copying its attention to plot detail.

So because the film pissed me off, I noticed all sorts of other really, really annoying problems. The Shanghai assassin is tracked down after Bond digs bullet fragments out of his shoulder for analysis: but, hey, in the opening sequence, the killer fires hundreds of rounds all over Istanbul. Was nobody in British Intelligence intelligent enough to analyse fragments from those bullets to get the same information months earlier?

And while we’ve come to expect Bond films to include disposable women, it’s getting a bit nauseous for me. In “Casino Royale” the outrageously beautiful Solange (Catrerina Murino) was tortured and slaughtered on a beach for giving Bond information; in “Quantum of Solace” (a film I enjoyed, but again was spoiled by asking me to believe that the world’s most flammable structure could make any money as a hotel – how did it get its H&S certificate?), Miss Fields is done in merely as an homage to Shirley Eaton in “Goldfinger”. Here, Marlohe’s hugely interesting Sévérine has enormous potential, but is bumped off criminally early.

So – nope, didn’t do it for me. I’d actually lost interest by the final sequence, a grand scale firefight in the Scottish Highlands involving Bond inexplicably deciding that the best way to fight the bad guys (about 50 of them) would be to go to the middle of nowhere armed only with an old shotgun and an even older Albert Finney. And, of course, an ending that relies on a supposedly hell-bent killer delaying the final coup de grace to his target to smack his lips long enough for Bond to escape the depths of a frozen lake to save the day.

It was another disappointment in film this year. I’d already been let down by “The Dark Knight Rises”, with its underwhelming villain and its preposterous plot devices (yeah, a phalanx of unarmed cops would, of course, march up a street in formation to be gunned down by machine-gun wielding bad guys) and its unbelievably schmaltzy ending; I’d been let down by “Looper”, an empty Bruce Willis vehicle that doesn’t have enough Bruce Willis in it, and which singularly failed to live up to its “The New Matrix” hype; and I’d walked out of the excrementally inept “Avengers Assemble”, a film with a great cast (Robert Downey Jnr. is always a hoot) that I just knew would be noisy, trashy, CGI-laden and, ultimately, a waste of the entrance fee.

Karl Urban as Judge Dredd

However, “The Bourne Legacy” restored my faith with its tight plot, great action sequences and interesting heroes and villains; Renner – who was in the Avengers movie – has real star potential. But, actually, the most satisfying watch of the summer was one movie that probably will never appear on anyone’s top 10 list. I loved “Dredd”, with Karl Urban, a B-movie actor who was by far the best impressionist as Bones in the “Star Trek” reboot. So simple, so mindless, so taut, it had all the fun of the best arcade video shoot-em-ups.

Fight your way up level after level, get to the top, kill the evil genius and destroy the devilish machine.

Game Over.

Yeah, that’s the way to do  an action movie.

“Frankenstein”, NT live broadcast, GFT, 14/7/12

Posted in Theatre review by raymondsoltysek on July 15, 2012

Danny Boyle’s NT production of “Frankenstein”

This is a retrospective of last year’s smash Danny Boyle production which starred Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller alternating in the main roles as the good Doctor and the hideous Monster; this time round, Cumberbatch gets to do ugly.

Frankenstein isn’t a story I feel particularly strongly about.  To me, it’s too old-fashioned, despite all the connections people make with genetic engineering.  Naa… it taps in too much to the ethic of the travelling freak show for me, and it was quickly left looking outdated by the real breakthroughs in science, medicine, evolution and psychology that thundered through the rest of the 19th century.

I have to confess, too,  that I don’t particularly enjoy Miller or Cumberbatch as actors; Miller has been in some clunkers like Dracula 2001, while I found the rebooted Sherlock really irritating and a terrible under-usage of the excellent Martin Freeman.  I’ve also not really got into Danny Boyle films either – it’s heresy in Scotland to admit you can’t stand Trainspotting – so I have to say I wasn’t convinced I’d be blown away in the way the critics and last year’s audiences seem to have been.

However, faults aside – and there are a few – this was pretty damned good.  The central role is clearly the monster, with Frankenstein reduced to a bit of a cardboard cutout sexually inadequate egomaniac.  There is much to admire about Cumberbatch’s performance (and, presumably, Miller’s on the nights he got the role) in that it generates real sympathy, and there are moments when creation appears far more wise and mature and intelligent than the creator (“Don’t be so… inconsistentttt…” he admonishes the Baron at one point).  In his erratic pleading and threatening and wheedling for the mate he so desperately needs to make him whole, he captures the emotional fragility of the man /child /monster very well indeed.  Especially good, though, are his scenes with Karl Johnson as De Lacey, the blind, impoverished university professor who teaches him to read Paradise Lost and introduces him to the concept of morality and who inadvertently unleashes his taste for revenge.

It’s a little unfair to describe Miller as a cut-out.  There is a definite sense of the maniacal self belief that he feels gives him the authority to pull everyone’s strings, including those of his fiancée Elizabeth as he baits a trap for the monster, in his barking, flat prose.  The two actors obviously work well together, so much so Miller is appearing in a future Sherlock storyline.

But there are significant issues, I feel.  The long opening spell, with the monster rolling around the stage as it learns to control its limbs, is overwrought and far too long.  I also think it weakens the story that the Baron doesn’t appear until that process is almost over; the monster should imprint on his “master”  the way a bird imprints on its mother if we are to believe his investment in and connection to  Frankenstein.

In addition, the staging is far too filmy, I feel.  There are big effects that are so underused they seem intrusive, especially a steam-punk train that represents the industry of the town the monster first flees too (I think) that appears onstage for about two minutes, then chugs off.  Not enough bangs for very big bucks.  And there are some clumsily stereotyped stagings, such as a grinding rock track to represent the city immediately followed by a pastoral choir to indicate a change of setting to a countryside complete with flocks of birds flushing from hayricks.  The set is also dominated by a huge cone of lights suspended over the stage which does various things from twinkling starlight-like to burning achingly bright, and I kept being reminded of Boyle’s sci-fi acid-trip borefest Sunshine.

The central characters totally dominate the play, and so other actors don’t really get a look in.  Even so, some of them don’t convince, and the part of Elizabeth is a shockingly inadequate vehicle for an actress of the quality of the beautiful Naomie Harris.  Finally, there are some moments of real humour but some badly misjudged episodes, including a teeth-grindingly offensive caricature of a couple of Western Isles yokels.

All in all, though, this was a quality production that didn’t reach the heights for me that it seems to have done for many others.  There is a huge number of teen thesp types in the audience tonight – I overhear one saying she hadn’t been to see anything in the theatre she wasn’t in herself for ages, and one lad goes out the door dreamily saying “Ben, what a man he is, what a man, what a man…” – and I get the sense they are encouraged here by the triumvirate of the three big names from TV and film, Boyle, Miller and Cumberbatch.  That’s fine, and they all deserve big plaudits for this; but, really, they didn’t quite carry it off, I think.