SPECTRE (2015)

SpectrePosthumously ordered to Mexico by the previous M (Judi Dench) to kill Marco Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona), James Bond (Daniel Craig) uncovers a secret organisation that connects Quantum and the deceased cyberterrorist Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem). He infiltrates a meeting of SPECTRE in Rome, following a tip-off from Sciarra’s widow (Monica Bellucci), where he is introduced to the group’s leader, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz). Henchman Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista) is dispatched to take care of Bond, stalking him all the way to Austria — to the workplace of Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), who 007 has promised to protect in exchange for Oberhauser’s location. With Bond AWOL, and both Q (Ben Whishaw) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) suspected of aiding and abetting his illicit investigations, M (Ralph Fiennes) finds himself in conflict with C (Andrew Scott), who wants to disband the 00 programme as part of a controversial reform of the secret service that will see MI5 and MI6 merged to form a Joint Intelligence Service.

The James Bond film series is a mess, and always has been. Spanning over fifty years and twenty-four movies it has seen the lead role re-cast, the creative team replaced, and the narrative revised so often that James Bond now exists more as an icon than a character. It is this iconography that holds the series together, so that a Bond movie is as identifiable for containing a Bond girl and a Bond villain as it is for featuring Bond himself – heck, the main character has to introduce himself at the outset of every movie just so that the audience knows who is on this particular occasion supposed to be playing him. This formula has produced a number of memorable adventures, but the repetitiveness has made it predictable and over time this has rendered it rote. There is no character development, no narrative progression, no end in sight, just an apparently endless succession of explosions and innuendo that can sometimes stimulate but can rarely satisfy.

It is for this reason that Sam Mendes’ Skyfall — EON’s twenty-third production — was such a success, both critically and commercially. Tasked with celebrating fifty years of Bond, Mendes was really the first director to sit down and think about who the character is or where the series might be going. Even the fact that he was ostensibly operating in a rebooted timeline barely two films old couldn’t stop him from producing the most engaging and comprehensive Bond movie in decades — one that was both emotionally resonant and culturally significant. Skyfall simultaneously operated both within and outwith the series’ established continuity, referencing previous adventures while reinstating fan favourite characters who were nevertheless unknown to Bond. This allowed Mendes to comment on or even slyly mock established tropes while also hitting all of the usual marks. It was at once a standalone adventure and a distillation of everything the series stood for; in many ways it was the definitive Bond movie, and may either have been used to bring one of cinemas longest running sagas to a triumphant conclusion or stand it in good stead to see out the rest of the century.

Obviously, there was little chance that Sony was going to retire one of its most celebrated and lucrative tentpoles, and the existence of SPECTRE shows that of the two options it was going to go with the latter. To the film’s credit, it approaches the idea that James Bond has to adapt to survive head on: Andrew Scott’s character explicitly questions the relevance and validity of the 00 programme in the 21st Century, and spearheads a Joint Intelligence Programme that favours surveillance over espionage. Unfortunately, however, it stops at lip-service, and rather than reach for new horizons the film — as its name suggests — resurrects an organisation that hasn’t been seen onscreen since 1971 to concern itself with instead. Mendes, who after much convincing agreed to return for SPECTRE, is clearly aware of his film’s shortcomings, but having killed M off at the end of Skyfall he is no longer able to refocus attention away from narrative inconsistencies and onto the characters. He overcompensates, contriving to retcon a shared history between Bond and his latest antagonist, but it is neither as convincing or as compelling as the relationship he once had with M. Realistically speaking SPECTRE may only be as incomprehensible as half the other films in the series (it’s certainly as stylish), but after Skyfall it feels all the more inconsequential.

In an age of shared universes and multimedia storytelling, Bond really is beginning to show his age. Like Skyfall, SPECTRE may continue to mirror and directly reference past events (though a fight on a train and a video tape labelled Vespa barely registers as fan-service at a time where Marvel is cross-pollinating between sub-franchises and Fox is commissioning films with the express intention of reinstating some semblance of continuity) but it doesn’t have the same focus or sense of purpose as its predecessor — it confuses matters when it should be clarifying them. Rather than use Skyfall as a jumping off point for new adventures or dynamics, SPECTRE feels more like an epilogue, an after-party, or perhaps just a hangover. The franchise hasn’t been renewed, it’s outstayed its welcome. The suitably stand-out Day of the Dead sequence might have been more than a prelude; it may have been a premonition.

2-stars

Horrible Bosses 2 (2014)

Horrible Bosses 2Having sent his last boss to prison for a murder he himself planned,  Nick Hendricks (Jason Bateman) has decided to become his own boss. Along with best friends Kurt Buckman (Jason Sudeikis) Dale Arbus (Charlie Day), Nick seeks the investment necessary in order to finance his premiere product: the Shower Buddy. When Burt Hanson (Christoph Waltz) bankrupts their business, before buying up their idea for next to nothing, however, they once again find themselves looking outside of the law for retribution. With the help of their criminal-on-call, Dean “Motherfucker” Jones (Jamie Foxx), Nick, Kurt and Dale plot to kidnap Burt’s son Rex (Chris Pine) and ransom him for the money necessary to buy back the Shower Buddy.

Green-lit on the back of the original film’s strong performance stateside, Horrible Bosses 2 reunites the surviving cast of Seth Gordon’s original for another go at the box office. The first film was — as Hollywood brom-coms go — something of a pleasant surprise, but by any other standard it was still a contrived, convoluted mess that had little going for it save for the odd gross-out gag or well-cast cameo. Certainly, it failed to deliver on its promise of dark comedy, settling instead for the sort of dim-wittedness that is unlikely to unsettle the masses. Although new to the franchise himself, replacement director Sean Anders keeps things on a remarkably even keel — bringing back screenwriters John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein for more of the same.

As a result, Horrible Bosses 2 is every bit as passable as its predecessor. Ex-bosses Kevin Spacey and Jennifer Aniston are back, at least — the former behind bars after killing Colin Farrell in the first film and the latter busy bedding the various members of her sex addiction clinic — and though in considerably diminished roles they just about manage to carry the film between them. Foxx, meanwhile, gets slightly more to do than before, and in addition to instigating a genuinely entertaining car chase during the third act he is seemingly the only character willing to consider the ethical implications of Nick, Kurt and Dale’s actions. Unlike last time, the supposed heroes of the piece are actually culpable of murder, but the filmmakers once again fail to address the issues of responsibility or justice, instead settling for a re-establishment of the status quo that feels neither earned or wanted.

It wouldn’t be such an issue if the protagonists were engaging enough to warrant a free pass — after all, beloved characters have got away with worse. While Bateman, Sudeikis and Day may have some semblance of chemistry it is not enough to compensate for their wholly unpleasant, utterly uninteresting characters. The uncomfortably unsavoury undercurrents remain, and many of the ‘jokes’ seem to be at the expense of some subgroup or other — never overt enough to cause actual controversy, but dubious nonetheless. It’s difficult to root for characters who are lauded for their ignorance, and unable to simply laugh off flippant displays of homophobia or misogyny you quickly lose any and all interest in their plight. By film’s end you’re ready to flag Jonathan Banks’ Detective Hatcher over and give evidence against all three of them. Having now exhausted murder and kidnapping you daren’t begin to imagine what hilarious hi-jinx might await them in part three.

But the chances are you will laugh, on occasion (I’m ashamed to admit that I did, anyway); but hopefully it will be completely against your better judgement. The actors are competent enough comedians to get their timing and delivery right, regardless of the quality of the gags themselves. That said, the qualifier in the title might just as easily stand alone. This one is Horrible, too.

2-stars

The Zero Theorem (2014)

The Zero TheoremReclusive computer genius Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) is waiting for a phone call. He doesn’t know when the call will come or who the caller might be, but he expects it to relate somehow to the meaning of life. Unfortunately, Leth has to spend a considerable amount of time at work, where he pours over various formulas under the watchful eye of Management (Matt Damon). While at a party, he is told by supervisor Joby (David Thewlis) that Management wants to put him on a new project, and accepts when it is revealed that he can perform his new duties from home. Qohen has been tasked with solving The Zero Theorem, a mathematical extrapolation of Big Crunch theory which seems to suggest that life is purposeless. Leth needs his phone call now more than ever, but with the sudden arrival of Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry) and Bob (Lucas Hedges) in his life he keeps finding himself getting distracted from his work.

You should of course know better than to apply logic to a Terry Gilliam movie; the auteur doesn’t plot his movies in the usual sense, rather he develop his themes until they themselves assume some sort of narrative shape. Watching a Gilliam production is often akin to an episode of Doctor Who; it’s a overwhelming, alienating experience in which you have to write the contrivances and improbabilities off to something vaguely timey-wimey and just savour the experience in all of its crackpot, nonsense glory. After all, it’s not every director who could overcome the untimely death of his lead actor by recasting not once but three times, as he did with last film The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus. Why? Even having watched the film the answers aren’t exactly forthcoming.

Of all Gilliam’s past films, it is perhaps 1985’s Brazil that is the most obvious forerunner to The Zero Theorem (no surprise really, as it’s being billed as the third and final part in the director’s ‘Dystopian Satire Trilogy’). It’s yet another tale of one man’s persecution by the state, only rather than the straight man being up against a force of complete and utter chaos the roles have this time been reversed. This time it’s the protagonist who babbles incoherently to the endless bewilderment of those around him; Leth is an eyebrow-deprived recluse who inhabits a fire-damaged chapel, refers to himself in the first-person plural and has turned a simple wrong number or prank call into a bona fide belief system.

There are shades of Gilliam-esque satire to the world inhabited by Leth, a culture that would invoke Dr. Seuss and Whoville if it wasn’t so technologically advanced or strangely sexualised. As a treatise on religion and the madness of blind faith The Zero Theorem is mildly successful, though in order to reach its eventual conclusions you must suffer through an awful lot of largely inconsequential silliness. Who’s to say whether Waltz — or for that matter any of the cast — are hitting their marks, for it is singularly impossible to imagine what exactly they might be aiming for. Waltz spends a lot of time acting frenzied at a computer, but to what effect it is difficult to say. Thierry and Hedges seem to hold some answers, but never enough to completely satisfy, while Tilda Swinton only adds to the insanity as a Scottish psychiatrist.

The Zero Theorem will likely appeal to those well-versed in the director’s style and sensibilities, and to anyone willing to analyse and scrutinise every utterance or incidence for hidden, if not misplaced meaning. For everyone else it is likely to prove even more obtuse, enigmatic and indecipherable than Gilliam’s other works. You have to be in the mood to watch The Zero Theorem, and it’s safe to say that I wasn’t. Honestly, the titular formula itself must have been easier to crack.

2-stars

Epic (2013)

Epic 3DForced to move in with her eccentric father (Jason Sudeikis) following the death of her mother, Mary Katherine (Amanda Seyfried), now MK, finds that he is still obsessing over tiny people he believes to inhabit the woods. While out looking for the family dog one evening, MK crosses paths with the queen of the forest, who has been left for dead following an attack by the villainous Boggans. The encounter leaves her shrunken and bequeathed with the queen’s dormant powers. Together with Leafmen Ronin (Colin Farrell) and Nod (Josh Hutcherson, who is apparently a man now), MK must protect the powerful magics from the Boggans’ leader, Mandrake (Christoph Waltz), if they are to save the forest and she is to return to full size. Read more of this post

Django Unchained (2013)

Django UnchainedIntercepting the Speck Brothers at a clearing in 1858, German-born dentist-turned-hitman Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) liberates a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) who he believes possesses information that could help him collect his next bounty. Unbiased by American bigotry, Schultz enters into a partnership with Django that sees them bound for Candyland on a mission to reunite Django with bride Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who was sold separately to plantation owner John Candy (Leonardo DiCaprio). Read more of this post

The Three Musketeers (2011)

The son of a Musketeer, d’Artagnan is eager to follow in his father’s footsteps. Arriving in Paris with his father’s sword and the familial horse, he immediately attracts the attention of the last remaining Musketeers – Athos (Matthew Macfadyen), Porthos (Ray Stevenson) and Aramis (Luke Evans) – by inadvertently challenging each of them to a duel. Interrupted by the Cardinal’s (Christopher Waltz) guards, d’Artagnan and the Musketeers fight their way out of trouble, resulting in them being brought before King Louis XIII (Freddy Fox) to be punished. Spared and instead gifted with new uniforms, much to the Cardinal’s dismay, the King asks d’Artagnan for dating advice, having been lead to fear that the queen (Juno Temple) might be having an affair with the Duke of Buckingham (Orlando Bloom). Sensing the work of old nemesis Milady (Milla Jovovich), the Musketeers set off for Britain in order to foil the Cardinal’s plot to set up Queen Anne and initiate war with Great Britain.

When I say that I enjoyed Paul WS Anderson’s The Three Musketeers, it is with the same unthinking abandon with which I declare my enjoyment of the bucket of Coke and overpriced packet of Peanut M&Ms with which I watched it. I enjoyed it as a consumer rather than as a connoisseur: as a big, silly, disposable summer blockbuster, one that was at the very least narrative-shaped, passingly competent and that didn’t happen to star any of the ever-growing list of actors I can’t help but hate on sight (well, except for James Corden). I am also gleefully unfamiliar with Alexandre Dumas’ French classic, saving me from the truly harrowing sense that I am watching a true work of art be sullied by a man who couldn’t even make a good Resident Evil movie.

It’s terrible. Of course it’s terrible. The Three Musketeers paints a France that is jarringly devoid of French people, in which history is treated with the same lack of respect as the source novel, and in which Logan Lerman receives top billing. It is a film that stars Percy Jackson, Legolas and the third incarnation of Marvel’s The Punisher; a film that ill-advisedly gives Milla Jovovich more to do than try to out-act zombies; and that features an airship battle in which it takes the combatants TEN WHOLE MINUTES to aim for the giant gas-filled balloon holding the enemy in the air. Yes, you heard that right: airships!

Upon witnessing two boats as they become skewered atop the Notre Dame Cathedral, as our fancy-dressed heroes fight it out while sporting a series of ever more ridiculous wigs, the sheer preposterous of it all is absolutely astonishing, the steampunk element steamrolling over what was once – or so I have been told – one of the great literary romances. From an ignorant cinemagoer’s point of view, however, it is just really, really silly. The plot is contrived, nonsensical and overburdened with would-be antagonists; by film’s end it is almost impossible to comprehend what went before aside from the fact that it hung awkwardly upon one man’s rudeness towards a horse, and that it may or may not have involved actors.

But, however appalling it might have been (think Wild Wild West with worse moustaches), I didn’t hate it. There was no forced angst, no transforming robots and no sign whatsoever that the editor had ever worked for MTV. Yes it’s derivative, yes it’s daft, yes Milla Jovovich can’t sustain a believable smile – let alone an entire facial expression – but, and this is even less common and more important than you might imagine, it’s also harmless fun. There’s even a bit where James Corden gets shat on by a bird. Twice. Priceless.