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3D or Not 3D, That is the Question – Part II

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

 

Two late releases of 2012 were both touted as making great use of 3D.  The first was The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the last hugely anticipated and hyped film of the year.  Not only would this be a 3D release, Peter Jackson had filmed his return to Middle Earth in 48 frames per second, which would (apparently) create a more vivid, living image.  In an interview, Jackson explained that 48 FPS turned the cinema screen into a window, through which one could look into the other world of the film, feeling oneself there in the vividness of the image.  By contrast, one review of An Unexpected Journey described it as like looking at an HD television, which rather diminished the cinema experience.

To save money, I saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in 2D, at 24 FPS.  My simple response: we’re back!  I loved it – the level of detail applied to every aspect of Middle Earth was superb.  The Hobbit is a more homely tale than The Lord of the Rings, and more time is spent in Bag End, with the young Bilbo (Martin Freeman) bustling about with his crockery and preparing supper.  Once Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and the dwarves arrive, the party is a prolonged affair that feels hectic yet comfortable and homely.  This was a group of people I’d be happy to sit down to dinner with.

Despite the length of the scene, and the film as a whole, Jackson paces the action well, moving smoothly from set piece to set piece.  An Unexpected Journey could be criticised for having a plot that consists entirely of set pieces, but when that it is the plot of the novel it is hard to see the film being different.  And what set pieces, from the prologue featuring the coming of Smaug and the exodus of the Dwarves, to a dangerous walk along narrow mountains paths as living mountains batter each other to pieces; from the desperate dash and spell-casting of Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) in Mirkwood to the helter-skelter running battle through the halls of the Goblin King; and the climatic battle with the Orcs of Azog the Defiler (Man Bennett) aboard their Wargs at the edge of a precipice, on a toppling tree, which is on fire.  The one scene I could have done without featured the three trolls, but since they are referenced and even appear in The Fellowship of the Ring, I understand why it had to be included.

Perhaps the most effective set piece, however, is a battle of wits rather than swords, in the form of Bilbo’s game of riddles with Gollum (Andy Serkis).  Gollum’s first appearance acknowledges the viewer’s familiarity with what has previously been seen in The Lord of the Rings, as he is heard before he appears, muttering and hacking, and it takes time before he is revealed in his entirety.  The game of riddles is a smooth, engaging sequence, allowing both performers space to express their situations – in Bilbo’s case fear and increasing desperation; for Gollum, eagerness and increasing frustration.  The scene segues perfectly into a chase, and despite the relative unimportance of the Ring to the overall plot of The Hobbit, it still receives emphasis befitting the viewer’s familiarity with the magical object, as well as Bilbo’s important choice when he has Gollum at his mercy.

The best element of An Unexpected Journey is its eponymous character, as Martin Freeman delivers one of the most engaging performances of the year.  More varied than Gandalf, less doom-laden than Frodo, Bilbo stands out from the other characters of the Tolkien-verse by the possession of a sense of humour.  The Lord of the Rings can be criticised for being rather dour, but The Hobbit had several moments that were laugh out loud funny (personal favourite: comedy faint).  Similarly, whereas the Fellowship was quickly assembled and the drama focused upon it falling apart, much of the drama in An Unexpected Journey is concerned with Bilbo proving himself to his travelling companions, especially Thorin (Richard Armitage).  Described as an amalgamation of Aragorn and Boromir, Thorin is the grim-faced and troubled hero, and the antagonistic development of his relationship with Bilbo gives the film real heart.  The moment at which the reluctant hobbit and the obsessed dwarf reconcile is moving and heart-warming, and helps to set up what is to come.  For The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, we can expect a united company encountering further dangers.

Everything that worked about An Unexpected Journey worked because of an intelligent script by Jackson and his co-writers Phyllida Boyens, Fran Walsh and Guillermo Del Toro, Weta’s superb production design, bravura performances from all concerned, and Jackson’s fluid direction that easily slips between different plot points and gives attention to different characters, drawing the viewer into this magical world.  There were a couple of points when I wondered how it would look in 3D, and whether 48 FPS would add anything to the experience.  Perhaps it would, but that enhancement would not be integral to what was on screen.  The high definition digital filming does make a different, as that itself creates a more detailed image than film can provide.  Digital film has been growing ever more prevalent, especially since Michael Mann gave LA a digital noir look in Collateral.  Mann’s own Miami Vice and Public Enemies made further use of HD digital film, and more recently Roger Deakins’ digital cinematography was one of the most striking elements of Sam Mendes’ SkyfallThe Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey looks gorgeous in HD, as we see the fine lines of the actors’ features, the individual blades of grass in the Shire, the leaves of Mirkwood and the intricate details of Elvish architecture in Rivendell.  Digital film adds a vibrancy and immediacy to the cinema image, which we can have at home as well thanks to Blu-Ray and HD TV, so I am all for this particular development in the cinematic art form.  3D would be fine if it didn’t cost extra, but without it, I don’t think I’m missing much.

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Review of 2012 Part Five – Great Expectations III: The Name’s, Well, You Know (Or Do You?)

Skyfall Image

The penultimate hugely anticipated film of 2012 was the 23rd instalment in the world’s longest running film series, reaching a triumphant 50th year of James Bond, 007.  Skyfall carried not only the expectations of being a major blockbuster, and a franchise instalment, but it was also a landmark film which had to both honour what had come before and show the old dog had enough life for another 50 years.

 

Pedigree

There are several ways in which Skyfall met this challenge.  One of the most celebrated aspects of the film was its director, Sam Mendes.  The first Oscar winner to direct a James Bond film, Mendes brought a particular set of baggage with him.  Most successful with intimate personal dramas such as American Beauty, Revolutionary Road and Away We Go, Mendes’ forays into larger scale stories, such as Road to Perdition and Jarhead, were mediocre at best.  Skyfall would be his first franchise film and his first action film.  Despite Mendes’ prestige, the pedigree for a director like him was not promising, as Marc Foster is a director also known for more sedate fair than Bond, such as Monster’s Ball and Finding NeverlandQuantum of Solace was generally regarded as a failure, and the pressure was on for the 23rd film to return to the quality established in Casino Royale.

This quality brought with it further expectations, as Daniel Craig was being spoken of as the best Bond, even before the release of Skyfall.  After his lean, intense yet vulnerable turn gave Martin Campbell’s 2006 reboot something different, fresh and exciting, the failure of Quantum of Solace seemed something of an aberration.  Surely something had gone wrong and a Bond film featuring Craig should somehow be better.  I think Craig makes a very fine Bond, and the problems with Quantum of Solace mostly relate to the director.  Foster fails to give the film any suspense, as scenes go from a standstill to a breakneck pace, not allowing for build-up.  Foster’s skills are ill-suited to directing action sequences which, as I have written before, require tension that needs to be built up.  To have everyone suddenly burst out of their chairs and running like mad is too sudden a transition to allow any tension.

As an example, the first post-title sequence of Casino Royale is efficiently built up as Bond and his fellow agent Carter (Joseph Millson) watch their target in Madagascar, then move in towards him which increases the tension.  Then the scene accelerates into a chase with Bond heading after Mollaka (Sebastien Foucan) through all manner of obstacles, the famous free-running through a construction site, fighting on top of a very high crane and culminating in a running gun battle through an embassy.  This scene increases the stakes and in doing so raises the tension, whereas Bond chasing after Mitchell (Glenn Foster) in Quantum of Solace comes out of nowhere and, after the initial shock, the viewer is left disorientated and disengaged.

Mendes said in interviews that he was especially concerned about making the opening sequence memorable, as Bond has a distinguished history of opening sequences that grab the viewer’s attention.  Skyfall pulls this off impressively, as we begin in Istanbul with Bond slowly pursuing a stolen hard drive, then missing a shadowy figure in the corridor.  He meets with his fellow agent Eve (Naomie Harris) and there is a brief car chase culminating in a marketplace, which is followed by a motorcycle chase over the city rooftops.  From there the chase progresses onto a train, with Bond making use of a convenient earthmover and gets wounded, then the chase moves through the train itself and eventually on top of it, before Eve is ordered to “take the bloody shot!”  This line is significant, as it is the culmination of this sequence that is intercut with a parallel scene in London in which M (Judi Dench) barks instructions.  The intercutting between the chase and the supervision heightens the tension by raising the stakes, and the finale of the chase creates further anticipation for the rest of the film.

 

Acknowledgement

Even at this early stage, Skyfall is playing to the audience’s expectations, and throughout displays an acknowledgement of what the viewer wants to and also expects to see.  No viewer would believe that Bond is actually killed at the start of the film, and Skyfall understands the audience’s position as Bond’s re-appearance is hardly a revelation.  Rather, we get to enjoy Bond’s hedonistic retirement in a tropical paradise, and his shadowy re-introduction at M’s home.  Skyfall acknowledges the viewer’s expectations – this is a Bond film so he will come back at his own instigation – but also exceeds the expectation through the inclusion of Bond “enjoying death”, as well as the continued lively relationship he shares with M.

This is but one of many expectations that are rewarded, exceeded, and acknowledged.  Many moments in the film refer to Bond’s history, much as The World is Not Enough did with lines such as “I never joke about my work, 007” and the reappearance of gadgets from previous films.  Similar gags appear in Skyfall, such as Bond receiving his new gun, a Walther PPK, just as he was issued with in Dr No.  Similarly, in a moment that might as well have featured a wink direct to camera, Bond reveals his Aston Martin DB5, made famous in Goldfinger.  No explanation is given for him having this remarkable vehicle, which possesses a few modifications, and this is part of the fun – the film and the viewer share a smirk at the inclusion of this piece of nostalgia. Even Bond’s early “death” echoes You Only Live Twice, the viewer well aware that Bond cannot be killed at the start of the film, if indeed at all.

However, Skyfall retreats from excessive technology, at least as relates to Bond himself.  When issued with his gun, another smirk is shared between viewer and film as Q (Ben Wishaw) admonishes: “What did you expect?  An exploding pen?”  This is both contemporary and nostalgic, as over the years, Bond’s gadgets became increasingly outlandish, culminating in the invisible car of Die Another Day.  Pierce Brosnan’s last outing as 007 serves as a watershed in the franchise’s history, with the reboot Casino Royale acting as a return to a more gritty, “realistic” spy thriller.  Quantum of Solace continued the emphasis on physicality, and Skyfall develops this conceit further, continuing the trend for physicality and reliance upon one’s own wits and abilities.  Computer hacking gives way to machine guns and helicopters, then to jerry-rigged mines and pistols, and eventually to knives and unarmed combat.  A disdain for sophisticated technology is demonstrated in a repeated gag about the “latest in communications technology: a radio transmitter”.  At key moments, both Bond and his nemesis Silva (Javier Bardem) make reference to radio transmission, as if slapping the face of the computer boffin Q and his ilk.  When Q inadvertently plays into Silva’s hands through his expert hacking, Silva admonishes the younger man with the message “Not such a clever boy”, before all hell breaks loose.

Not that Silva is above using technology: his nefarious schemes necessitate a global reach that is facilitated through him being an expert hacker as well, allowing him to destabilise governments and attack MI6 headquarters.  But whereas previous Bond villains established their bases in volcano craters (You Only Live Twice, Goldeneye), undersea complexes (The Spy Who Loved Me) and even space stations (Moonraker), Silva’s lair is eerily simple: an abandoned city on an isolated island in the South China Sea, a ghost town that reinforces the almost supernatural influence that Silva enacts over the world.  The scene that introduces Silva is a master-class in minimalism, as the mise-en-scene is a crumbling building reminiscent of a church, filled with computer base units and a few screens.  This serves as a contrast to the steel and glass MI6 headquarters, a symbol of power that Silva easily infiltrates through his technological skills.  Visually, Silva’s introduction is stunning, as he emerges at the end of the long hall and steadily walks towards the camera in a continuous shot.  This long take further exacerbates the viewer’s anticipation for Silva to reach the foreground, while his silken tones echo through the cavernous space, emphasising our awareness as well as Bond’s that this is Silva’s domain.

Silva himself is a remarkable and impressive feature of Skyfall.  The most effective Bond villains have been those that serve as a dark reflection of Bond himself, such as Grant (Robert Shaw) in From Russia With Love and Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean) in Goldeneye.  With Silva the reflection is multi-faceted, as he is not only a (former) successful MI6 agent, who like Bond has officially “died”, his relationship with M is a twisted version of the one she has with Bond.  As in No Country For Old Men, Bardem delivers a thoroughly chilling performance of a genuine psychopath (despite a bizarre haircut): quiet, poised but with an evident relish, like a cobra that will smile as it strikes.  Also, he demonstrates a remarkable ability to get under Bond’s skin, as evidenced in the homoerotic encounter between the two as Silva unbuttons Bond’s shirt in a seductive manner.

Craig’s films have downplayed Bond’s seductive powers, which became tedious and even painful during the Moore years.  None of the last three films have ended with Bond in the arms of a lady lovely, and in Skyfall there are only a couple of such scenes.  This emphasises a different relationship that is central to the film, between Bond and M, as well as Silva.  Serving as the dark reflection of Bond, Silva is also coded as the bad son to Bond’s good son.  Bond’s bristly but ultimately devoted relationship with M provides the emotional core to Skyfall, personal dramas adding to the plot developments.

 

Nationality

As mentioned earlier, MI6 contrasts with Silva’s dilapidated headquarters, but there are different locations used by MI6.  After the grand offices on the Thames are attacked, they move underground into a back-up HQ built out of Churchill’s WWII bunker.  Thus begins the film’s concern with “Britishness”.  Curiously for the British Mendes, Skyfall was his first foray into presenting something British, and nationality remains prominent throughout Skyfall.  A key trope of the Bond franchise is exotic locations, which do appear including Istanbul, Bond’s “retirement” in the tropics and part of his mission that takes him to Shanghai and Macau, and from there to Silva’s island.  But afterwards, the film takes place entirely within Britain, and uses its locations to interesting effect.  Churchill’s bunker brings with it connotations of Britain under fire, and a chase takes place through the London Underground and into Westminster, with Silva disguised as a British copper.  The film’s final act involves going “back in time”, travelling into the highlands of Scotland to a stately home.  Both for Bond and for the film as a whole, the final act is a return to the past and to homeground, defending Britain against invasion.

Other tropes of “Britishness” appear: M has a china bulldog, decorated with a Union Jack, that becomes a talisman for Bond despite his dislike of it; Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), initially presented as an interfering Whitehall bureaucrat, is revealed to have a military history serving in Northern Ireland; Bond’s mission to Macau carries postcolonial connotations, the British agent exploring a former colony.  The past haunts Skyfall, both in its narrative and our understanding of it.  The past of the franchise itself explicitly returns when Bond enters M’s office, which is identical to the office of years gone by, visited by Sean Connery since 1962.  I always remembered the door with leather padding, and seeing it behind Daniel Craig was an interesting blend of the old and the new.  Clearly the blend of elements in Skyfall worked, as it has now become the highest grossing film ever at the British box office.

 

Inter-Textuality

The history of Bond was not the only reference I found in Skyfall.  In my last post on Looper, I commented on the inter-textual connections found in Rian Johnson’s film, as a central element in science fiction.  For all its elaborate technology, the Bond franchise is not science fiction, but it also reminded me of other films.  The Jason Bourne trilogy is an apparent influence on the reboot of James Bond, with a grittier approach and Daniel Craig constituting a more realistic and vulnerable spy protagonist in the mould of Matt Damon’s amnesiac assassin.  Specifically, Skyfall’s opening chase through Istanbul is reminiscent of The Bourne Ultimatum’s frantic dash through Tangiers, including our hero riding a motorcycle up a flight of stairs.  Bourne is not the only secret agent inspired by Bond and echoed in Skyfall, as a scene in which Bond moves through the London Underground, in constant communication with Q in a high-tech hub, is reminiscent of 24.  When Silva is brought into custody, he taunts Bond and M much like the Joker does Commissioner Gordon and Batman in The Dark Knight, and like the Joker, Silva is both psychotic and physically deformed, as revealed when he extracts a prosthetic mouthpiece to reveal his true features in Skyfall’s most gruesome moment.  Silva’s taunting of M also echoes The Silence of the Lambs, perhaps very deliberately.  As in The Dark Knight and also The Avengers, Silva’s imprisonment is a ruse and all part of his master plan, a narrative trope that may well continue.  John McClane has been described as a blue collar James Bond, and the final attack on Bond’s family home, Skyfall, features a highly organised assault team against a resourceful individual who uses his surroundings to his advantage, much like in Die Hard.  To take it even further, Bond defends his home using homemade devices, not unlike Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone – not a comparison I ever thought I’d make!

 

Gender

One aspect of Skyfall troubles me: the reassertion of classic Bond tropes brings with it some disturbing gender politics.  Since Goldeneye, the Bond franchise has taken some steps to distance itself from Bond being “a sexist misogynist dinosaur”, as M argued in Brosnan’s first outing.  Tougher Bond girls have made appearances, such as Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh) in Tomorrow Never Dies, Jinx (Halle Berry) in Die Another Day and Camille (Olga Kurylenko) in Quantum of SolaceSkyfall features Eve, who is Bond’s fellow agent in Istanbul and Macau, and with whom he appears to have a romantic liaison (though we’re spared the details).  Eve is a competent field agent, but come the final scene, she is relegated to a secretary and revealed to be M’s eternal assistant, Moneypenny.  This is another wink to the Bond fan, but also implies that secretary is the correct role for a woman.  M’s fate implies this further, and the final occupant of the office seems a reassertion of patriarchy, as though the franchise has returned to where it belongs with men in the positions of power and agency.  This is a disturbing element in a film aware of its legacy, especially in light of the potentially progressive amendments taken since 1995.  Skyfall’s conclusion appears to suggest that the Bond franchise is not a place for women except in traditional roles.

 

Best Ever?

Despite this disconcerting reassertion of patriarchy, I enjoyed Skyfall immensely.  It was gripping and thrilling, well-plotted with detailed characters, exercised a knowing acknowledgement with the viewer to just the right extent, therefore avoiding being too clever-clever, and looked stunning.  Some have described Skyfall as the best Bond ever, and while I think it is too early to say, it is certainly the most beautiful, as Roger Deakins’ digital cinematography looked deep and rich enough to swim in.  Digital filming has been growing steadily in recent years, and Skyfall is a film that makes full use of its possibilities.  There were points during the film when I wanted shots to linger on the myriad of colours captured in the frame, especially during a sequence in Shanghai.  This sequence features one of the strangest fight scenes I have seen in a film, as Bond and his opponent move with a fluid grace within the shimmering beauty of the digital image.  Alternately silhouetted and illuminated by shifting light patterns, the hand-to-hand combat becomes an almost dream-like dance, perhaps a microcosm of the dance of light and shadow that is cinema itself.  This level of visual invention permeates the film, especially apparent in the climax, when the Scottish moors are illuminated by a deep red, casting an almost hellish yet still beautiful hue over the film’s finale.

Silva sends M a message that reads “Think on your sins”, and the themes of atonement and redemption reach fullest expression during the final sequence on the moors.  Not only is the scene bathed in hellish red light, it also features Bond struggling with an opponent beneath the ice of a frozen loch, sinking deeper out of sight.  Bond’s emergence from the water adds to the sense of a lone warrior battling the legions of hell, while in a church M awaits her fate.  Her fate genuinely surprised and moved me, and I was left wondering whether M achieved redemption or damnation in the end.  Much like Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, Skyfall does not end triumphantly for our hero.  It does conclude with Bond ready to get back to work, but it also possesses a profound ambiguity and sober ambivalence.  For a Bond film to offer such ambiguity is genuinely surprising and impressive, enabling Skyfall to excel not only as a Bond film, but as a film in general, one of the most satisfying of 2012.  I have previously written about expectations and how they influence our responses: with Skyfall I expected a good Bond film, but not a film that worked on so many levels and exceeded my expectations narratively, aesthetically and thematically.  The blend of familiarity and innovation in Skyfall surpassed the (expected) pleasures of The Avengers, Prometheus, The Dark Knight Rises and Looper, providing one of the most satisfying cinema experiences I had in the past twelve months.