Old Dog – New Tricks – Skyfall

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After a run of sub par Brosnan adventures, Casino Royale was a breath of revitalizing air for the ailing Bond franchise. Though 2008’s shaky Quantum of Solace may have been a step backwards, Skyfall grabs hold of Bond’s tuxedo and drags him firmly into the 21st century. Skyfall retains the more sombre feeling of Casino Royale while keeping an eye on the franchise’s past. It also plays upon contemporary fears such as terrorism, data theft and even a government enquiry making Skyfall a thoroughly modern spy flick.

After an emotionally charged opening sequence in Istanbul, Bond is left in a fragile mental state. Important data winds up in the hands of an unknown villain – an event that leads to globetrotting trips to Shanghai and Macau. The action also hits the heart of Bond’s world. London itself is threatened with MI6 bombed and M finding herself under Whitehall scrutiny from minister Gareth Mallory, played with multifaceted inscrutability by a fantastic Ralph Fiennes.

Daniel Craig slips back into Bond’s impeccable leather shoes with aplomb. Craig interactions with the cast – particularly a sublime Judi Dench – are snappy and terse, reflecting his more taciturn take on Bond. Stealing the show, however, is the shockingly couiffered villain Silva. Javier Bardem infuses him with a campness that belies the character’s considerable menace and the interplay between him and Craig crackles with exciting chemistry.

For all of Skyfall’s modern trappings, the film does keep an eye on the franchises’ past. All the classic Bond elements are present and correct, and the sight of a silver Aston Martin DB5 is enough to illicit fan girlish giggles and nostalgia.

Expertly lensed by cinematographer Roger Deakins (who was robbed at the Oscars this year), Skyfall is an artier affair than previous Bonds. A stunning hall of mirrors sequence in a Shanghai skyscraper, including an almost balletic shadow soaked fight scene, lit only by the occasional muzzle flash, impresses most of all.

It definitely isn’t perfect though. The point that Bond is getting on a bit is laboured quite heavily; Bérénice Marlohe’s Sévérine exists purely for Bond to make a callous wisecrack and there’s some really shoddy CGI that is quite distracting.

Ultimately though, the action set pieces satisfy – especially a London Underground set foot chase – and the film offers new emotional depths to iconic spy. A more character-driven story than previous Bonds, Skyfall is a triumph and an excellent celebration of Bonds 50 years on screen.

Smash Glass For Entry…On, Second Thought Don’t – Shattered Glass

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Stephen Glass is apparently a brilliant writer. His features and stories make him stand out from the crowd, and Stephen soon begins to shoot up the journo ladder. Respected American political publication New Republic hires our boy for his way with words and his ability to churn out engaging copy. Newly appointed editor Charles Lane picks his articles apart, revealing gaps and inconsistencies. The jig is up. Stephen’s editors and sources discover his fraud and the New Republic swallows its pride by printing an apology to its readers. And obviously fires Stephen.

This real life spectacle – adapted from an article no less – is, at least, a little interesting and opens up questions that ponder Stephen’s mind set and motivations. Questions that are left dangling by director Billy Ray’s decision to not touch on the psychological but rather the practical. What could be an intense character study of a man out of place is actually a dryly-mechanical examination of how the fraud was discovered.

Hayden Christensen is a perpetual annoyance as Stephen. He flashes his puppy dog eyes too often and petulantly whines his way through the film. This all makes it a little hard to believe that Glass was actually a potential journalistic wunderkind. It also made me question why everybody in the New Republic office held him such high personal regard: as he is portrayed Stephen Glass must’ve been an insufferable man-child. And not in the fun Will Ferrell mould.

The supporting cast isn’t up the much either. The usually dependent Peter Sarsgaard and Chloë Sevigny appear to just coast through the film with a sense of detachment and an air of apparent disinterest. Hank Azaria, though, possesses enough warmth as friendly editor Michael Kelly to be a performance that isn’t based around smugness. He makes for a welcome relief, but possess barely any screen time, and before long the film begins to suffer under the weight of walking charisma vacuum Christensen.

Conventionally shot in unimaginative style, and bookended by cheesy voiceovers, the film lacks any real charisma and fails to utilise the story to its full potential. However, the events that lead up to Stephen’s discovery are presented in a lightly engaging fashion, so it’s not a complete snooze fest.

If handled differently, Shattered Glass could have been an impressive psychological thriller. But as the film stands – hampered by listless performances and a dull script – it is a stitled and boring exercise in adaptation.

Incidentally, Season 5 of The Wire features a sub plot that’s similar to Shattered Glass’ so instead of wasting your time on a film starring an actor so wooden I could sand him down and turn him into a nice coffee table, go and watch potentially the greatest TV show ever made.

 

 

Crimson Tide – The Killing Fields

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Cracking open Cambodia’s isolationist shell and revealing the barbarism of Khmer Rouge occupation with such painful realism couldn’t have been an easy accomplishment for director Roland Joffé. And yet with, The Killing Fields, Joffé captures the multifaceted tragedy of the country’s communist oppression with startling reality.

It’s a story that certainly deserves a place on the big screen. Comparable with The Battle of Algiers and Schindler’s List, The Killing Fields is not an easy or even entertaining watch. It is, however, a necessary watch, chronicling as it does the effects of absolute power and cruelty upon a populace – all of which is presented in a fashion that refuses to shirk away from the gory truth.

Set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, he film opens in Cambodia’s capital in 1973 and charts the relationship between New York Times journalist Sydney Schanberg and his Cambodian interpreter Dith Pran as the country slides into chaos. As Pol Pot’s “Year Zero” rips through the country, Schanberg and Pran separated. Schanberg spends the next five years trying to rescue his friend while Pran endures the horrendous cruelty of the ultra left wing regime.

As Joffé mentions on the DVD’s yack-track, The Killing Fields is as much a love story as it is a morality tale, and this is highlighted by the on-screen chemistry between the leading actors. Sam Waterston portrays Schanberg with the impetuousness and spirit you would expect from a cinematic journalist, but also embodies the considerable ethical dilemma that rocks him as the pair is separated with an emotional heaviness.

But the film’s standout performance is from Haing S Ngor. A doctor before acting, Ngor shines in what is surprisingly his first film role. Ngor dealt with the Khmer Rouge’s brutality first hand as he was separated from his pregnant wife by the regime and forced to work in the countryside before escaping to neighbouring Thailand. Drawing on these experiences, Ngor draws on these traumas to deliver a heart wrenching performance of unquestionable believability and authenticity.

The Killing Fields is a film that pulls no punches. Scenes and snapshots will last with you forever. Particularly galling is when Pran manages to evade his captors and awakens in a field of rotting corpses – indisputable evidence of the Khmer Rouge’s viciousness. A section set inside a Coca-Cola factory is a poignant reminder of the American origin of the conflict – a cynical bombing campaign to root out North Vietnamese guerrillas in Northern Cambodia.

Joffé handles the film expertly. Scenes of tension are nearly unbearable and the scenes of violence are grainy, gritty and all the more poignant given that these are all real events. The film’s first half, expertly shot by Chris Menges, is an almost unrivalled document of the chaos and confusion of an armed revolution.

It’s not a perfect film, however. The ending scene teeters on the edge of over-sentimentalism and the film’s often-intrusive score is positively schizophrenic. But these are minor complaints.

On the whole The Killing Fields is really Joffé’s masterpiece. Unflinching and ultimately a brave film (It was released in 1984 – a time when Cambodia was still in the grips of sever inner turmoil), The Killing Fields remains a compelling, if harsh, piece of cinematic realism.

Fashion Faux Pas – The Devil Wears Prada

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The bitch or be bitched-at world of fashion is one that rarely finds its way onto the silver screen. Although Hollywood has shown us that there’s more to life than being really, really, ridiculously good looking with Ben Stiller’s side-splitting Zoolander, the movie industry has tended to shy away from Paris fashion shows and summer collections. The Devil Wears Prada is a film that hopes to cause some sensation on Hollywood’s catwalk.

Loosely adapted from the bestselling book of the same name by director David Frankel, comedy-drama The Devil Wears Prada follows aspiring journalist Andrea Sachs as she is hired as an assistant to the editor of fictional fashion magazine Runway and thrown into the cutthroat world of the fashion industry. Gradually the job “a million girls would kill for” begins to take over her life, and Andrea must decide whether her new high pressure role is worth compromising her personal integrity for or whether she’d be happier with her man and a less demanding career. Pretty typical stuff.

It’s worth noting that, although the film is set in the headquarters of a magazine, The Devil Wears Prada is more a tale of one woman’s self-discovery than it is a film examining journalistic practices. Office politics are briefly touched upon and Runway’s resident fashionistas are presented as less fashion police and more fashion Gestapo. But the nitty-gritty of actually creating an issue of Runway is only very briefly glimpsed.

Anne Hathaway brings Andrea to life in fairly bog standard way. Sachs is cutesy and innocent enough when she first arrives at Runway, but as her character begins to find her own bitchy streak, and starts to transform into one of the magazine’s resident glamazons, Hathaway is still too earnest and polite as to be convincing as a cold hearted dragon lady. Andrea remains a Primark blouse in Chanel world.

Not to worry though, as The Devil Wears Prada scores high in the bitch stakes thanks to its two standout performances.  Emily Blunt shines as Emily Charlton, Sachs’s bitchy British rival for the editor’s attentions. Sporting an outstanding auburn bob, Blunt is conniving, motor mouthed and downright frosty, spitting out venomous quips with relish. Certainly the film suffers when Blunt isn’t on screen.

Stealing show as the titular devil, though, is the remarkable Meryl Streep who plays Runway’s tyrannical editor Miranda Priestly. Cruella de Ville by way of Josef Stalin, Priestly is a character that could have potentially been turned into a bellowing, scenery chewing maniac. Luckily Streep is too tasteful an actress to traipse down that particular road. Instead, Streep is an icy, detached monster of an editor. Completely laconic and cool, Streep imbues Priestly with mannerisms that possess an almost sociopathic viciousness as she dispatches scathing putdowns with clinical precision. When the horn rimmed specs do fall, in one of the film’s most touching scenes, it’s through Streep’s skill that we realise there actually is a human being behind that permafrost exterior.

Though The Devil Wears Prada is clearly girl’s own stuff, it does have some male presence. Stanley Tucci pops up as Runway’s art director who acts as a type of affable mentor to Hathaway’s character.

The film’s script is another one of its strengths. Chock full of fashion talk and terrific witticisms, it’s a snappy, punchy, and ultimately funny screenplay. Indeed, it is due to the combination of the witty script and Meryl Streep that The Devil Wears Prada manages to escape crushing Hollywood mediocrity.

The film’s New York City backdrop fits perfectly, reflecting, as it does, the hustle and bustle of both the media and the fashion industry. Clever use of montage propels the film along nicely, ensuring a brisk pace. Montages aside, The Devil Wears Prada is shot in conventional and conservative style. It’s a pretty bland film visually.

When the film hits Paris in the third act, however, The Devil Wears Prada begins to drag its feet. Character arcs come to a predictable close as realisations are made and a romantic subplot fizzles out into a mushy conclusion – a shame given the film’s frantic first half. The soundtrack isn’t much to write home about either with upbeat tunes used during the upbeat scenes and typical soppy ballads used during the dramatic scenes.

The Devil Wears Prada certainly is not a bad film. Blessed with a cracking and anchored by two solid turns, it almost makes it off the peg and into this year’s must have collection. The film is unfortunately dragged down by formulaic plotting, unimaginative cinematography and a lame third act. What could have been a stunning Dolce and Gabbana piece remains a pretty summers dress from Topshop.

Finest Hour – Medal of Honour Airborne

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Since the Call of Duty franchise popped its head above the foxhole and opened fire on the gaming industry, first person shooters have become the genre that defines the current generation.

But CoD wasn’t always the top dog. Before players got the call up and were shipped off to non-descript Middle Eastern locales, they were told to fix bayonets and get stuck into some Nazis with the Medal of Honour series.

With Medal of Honour Airborne EA LA has shaken things up by avoiding the linearity that plagues modern FPSes by literally dropping you right into the action. Players parachute into open world levels and are tasked with a number of objectives before the level progresses. Which order the objectives are completed is entirely up to you. This makes for a refreshing and entertaining change of pace then simple advancing down one corridor to the next. Skill drops are dotted around each level for players to find and earn their jump wings.

Enemies will constantly respawn in certain areas so the challenge always remains high. Enemy A.I though is a little scatterbrain but increase in power and skill as the game progresses, keeping you on your toes throughout.

Another way Airborne differs from your regular shooter is how your guns can be upgraded as you fight you way through the game. More ammo, pistol grip and adjustable sights are some of the upgrades players can earn, and all make a difference. The contrast between your basic Thompson and the fully kitted out model is as different as black and white.

If you’re used to CoD’s streamlined controls, however, Airborne’s may feel a little clunky. Melee combat is riddled with poor hit detection, but the cover system works well. Players can lean round walls and pop up behind cover to snap off a few shots with a flick of the left thumb stick – handy for taking out that pesky sniper or machine gun nest.

The campaign is far too short. Taking you from the south of Italy, to Holland and then into Germany itself, there is a very real sense that the game is only just starting to take off before it comes to the end. While replay value comes from finding the skill drops and upgrading your arsenal, it would’ve been nice to revert back to the old Medal of Honour system; around 5 separate campaigns featuring a number of missions apiece.

While the controls won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, and the game feels all over before Christmas, Medal of Honour Airborne is an engaging and action packed first person shooter that is a fun alternative to the army of Call of Duty clones on the market.

Veronica Guerin

The Fightin’ Irish – Veronica Guerin

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Veronica Guerin’s story is certainly worthy of silver-screen adaptation. A courageous Irish investigative journalist, Guerin wrote in-depth articles on Ireland’s criminal drug trade and paid the ultimate price for her refusal to budge from the truth. She was murdered on 26 June 1996 by the drug gang she was reporting. This event galvanised Ireland into cracking down on the country’s drug dealers and Guerin is remembered today for her determination and bravery in pursuit of a story.

While presented superficially with gritty realism, Veronica Guerin suffers by repeated slips into Hollywood sentimentality – not surprising when considering the director. Joel Schumacher, the man responsible for the ultra-neon campfest of Batman & Robin, is an odd choice for the film’s subject matter.  Schumacher bungles Veronica Guerin with a raft of wrong choices and clichés. Cheesy slo-mo, an intrusively saccharine score and unadventurous camerawork all hamper what should’ve been a great film. Aesthetically, Veronica Guerin also relies on conventional fare. Dublin’s darker side is presented in standard Hollywood fashion. Drug dens are all used needles and grimy sinks and brothels are populated by dead-eyed girls and shot in subdued lighting. There is an unfortunate sense that this is an Irish story being handled by an American, which holds Veronica Guerin back.

It’s Veronica Guerin’s central performance that keeps the film from veering into mediocrity. Cate Blanchett’s rock-solid turn as Guerin is centred on a strong sense of conviction and emotional truth. Though she imbues Guerin with feistiness, it’s when Blanchett goes deeper and reveals the fear sitting behind Guerin’s unshakable exterior that we really see the resolve that propels the character. Ciarán Hinds is also excellent in support as gangster John Traynor – as slippery and seedy as his moustache would suggest.

Whilst not an entirely bad film Veronica Guerin smacks of mismanagement and missed opportunity. What could’ve been a hard-hitting biopic of a truly inspirational figure is actually an unfortunate victim of Hollywood polish and is kept from greatness by Schumacher’s cloying need for sentiment.