2012, Sam Mendes
So the saying goes, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” This age-old adage is a primary theme running through Skyfall, James Bond’s 23rd official adventure which also comes to mark his 50th anniversary on the big screen, whether it’s a character directly stating the phrase or even a running joke involving a toy dog figurine that Bond boss M keeps on her desk. For his third time sporting the golden gun, Daniel Craig selected Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes (the two had previously worked together on Road to Perdition, which resulted in one of Craig’s finest performances) to assume the enviable position at the helm of the production, and with him Mendes brought a desire to return Bond to the days of old while still keeping him firmly rooted in the modern world. You see, Skyfall is never about trying to teach this old dog any new tricks. Instead, it’s all about teaching a new dog some of the old ones.
In 2006, the Bond franchise changed in a big way with Casino Royale, Craig’s first outing and a film that served to reinvent the series with a bold new approach, making it darker and more intimate. Grounded in a more modern kind of reality, gone were the invisible cars and ice palaces of Die Another Day and instead came a brutal grit that went straight for the throat. Six years later (with one unfairly criticized Quantum of Solace in between) Skyfall serves to reinvent the series again, albeit not in as sweeping a fashion as Royale did. Working with a script from writing team Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan, Mendes and Craig bring together the best of all the Bond worlds in Skyfall, with plenty of things for the modern day action fan as well as those who have long been following the franchise and perhaps weren’t quite as accepting of its darker new approach. With the combination of humor and suaveness from the Connery installments, the tongue-in-cheek wit of the Moore days, the exhilarating action of the Brosnan films and that grimness of the last two Craig installments, Skyfall brings in many different facets that have worked before into a film that takes the franchise in a bold new (and yet simultaneously old) direction.
While returning players Craig and Judi Dench are on top form in their roles, Skyfall marks the welcome addition of what will hopefully be a recurring ensemble of new faces in the MI6 family. Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris and Ben Whishaw are all introduced as new, and perhaps also familiar, figures that made me realize the last two films were lacking something I didn’t even know I missed — a sense of family. Adding in some main players to the core MI6 group gives Skyfall an added emotional involvement, which makes it all the more vulnerable to the schemes of the energizing new villain on the scene, the inimitable Javier Bardem’s Raoul Silva.
“This time it’s personal,” is a longstanding cliche of many a film franchise and while it’s a tired tradition, it certainly holds true that this time it really is personal for Bond and MI6. Bardem’s Silva attacks them right at their core, with a technologically adept scheme that allows him to root straight into the very innovative designs that they thrive on. With the script giving him an extensive history with MI6 and M in particular, Silva is out for blood in a big time personal way and this adds an intimacy to the proceedings that we haven’t seen in a while from a Bond villain. Silva isn’t out for world domination or global destruction, instead he just wants to bring M’s world down around her and watch her fall to shreds, a personal vendetta that is played with strong conviction by both Bardem and Dench while being expertly weaved in by the writing staff.
Bardem’s Silva is another one of the many parts of Skyfall that recalls the older days of the franchise; an extravagant, larger-than-life villain who chews up the scenery in the most glorious fashion. Bardem once again creates one of the most memorable screen villains of recent years, instantly cementing himself in our memory with a delightful introduction scene that watches him toy with Bond emotionally, physically and sexually. Silva doesn’t appear until halfway into Skyfall, but perhaps the biggest credit to Bardem’s performance is the fact that once he shows up you can’t even imagine the picture existing without him.
This memorable portrayal goes a big way in making sure that Skyfall doesn’t drag for a moment and one of the film’s most admirable achievements is just how well-paced it all is. Mendes and his writing staff have so many different pieces to fit together in this elaborately staged puzzle, and yet none of it ends up leading to a feeling of things being too cluttered or stuffed. Skyfall shows us an analog Bond in a digital world, brings in heavy personal stakes while also exploring his own personal history (along with M’s), introduces one of the series’ best villains and a crop of new characters all while revitalizing the franchise to head in a proper new direction going forward, yet somehow Mendes is able to fit all of this together in a fluid form that flies by its over two hour duration. A more than noteworthy achievement in action cinema and the franchise at large, Skyfall is a sharply funny, wickedly intense and remarkably smart entry that celebrates Bond’s 50th birthday in grand fashion.
2012, Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski
One of the many running themes throughout Cloud Atlas is universality, and the making of the film really defined that in a multitude of ways. A collaborative effort between three directors, Atlas saw the helm being taken by Tom Tykwer, a German, as well as the Chicago-born Andy and Lana Wachowski. The cast was assembled of actors from America (such as Tom Hanks and Halle Berry), England (Jim Broadbent, Ben Whishaw, etc.), Australia (Hugo Weaving), Korea (Doona Bae) and Germany (Martin Wuttke). Even the production of the film ended up having to be a collaborative effort, receiving funds from Germany, the U.S., Hong Kong and Singapore in order to put up its appropriately massive budget.
It’s fitting that the behind-the-scenes involvement was such an international effort, as the plot of Cloud Atlas takes us from the wildly diverse locals of the South Pacific Ocean in 1849 to 1973 California to 2144 Korea and all the way to a post-apocalyptic Earth dated 106 years after “The Fall” and that’s only naming about half of the different settings. With the principle cast all taking on many distinctive roles across each section of the film, allowing them to traverse time, genre and even race, Cloud Atlas is the rare film that truly lives its themes as much as it presents them to the audience. As the story of interconnecting spirits takes us on a roller coaster of emotion, thrills and technical astonishment, these themes become ever-clearer and the focus with which Tykwer and the Wachowskis are able to convey it all is really hard to imagine possible.
Running through an almost three hour duration, the breathtaking quality of Cloud Atlas never ceases for a moment and I found myself just as in awe of the final moments as I was when the whole thing began. It’s a film that practically demands multiple viewings for several reason, not the least of which is being able to fully appreciate the sheer magnitude of ambition on display here. As the story moves through its various settings, we are also transported across different genres, from romance to conspiracy thriller to daft comedy and post-apocalyptic adventure. The easiest classification of Cloud Atlas would be as science fiction or fantasy, but even that would be missing out on so many of the wonderful layers that are incorporated throughout it. To view it simply as a work of science fiction would unjustly dismiss the supremely touching emotion of the 1936 storyline of two male lovers who are met with tragedy, yet are still able to see the serene beauty of the world.
Cloud Atlas is the first film since perhaps the Lord of the Rings trilogy that is able to fully meet the definition of a grand, sprawling epic and the most impressive achievement of all is how the directors are able to make it flow so smoothly together. With some absolutely phenomenal editing work done by Alexander Berner, these stories transition into one another seamlessly, never jarring you from one to the next and in fact doing quite the opposite. There’s a natural flow between each move and at times Berner’s editing is even able to add emotional cues for the audience from the way that he brings each story to connect with one another. It’s a rare case of editing not only being utilized on a technical level, but in a way to enhance the themes and story as well.
Of course, with many different genres, settings and time periods on display here, the work of every member of the crew is essential to making the overall product a success and thankfully no one misses a beat. Whether it’s the practically revolutionary makeup work, the key costume design or the absorbing set decoration, every story feels just as rich and alive as the ones surrounding it and there’s never a moment that feels as though it’s lacking in any department. Special note must be given to the musical score, by Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek and Tykwer himself, and the way that they are able to adapt the music fittingly to each genre — whether its the romance of the ‘36 story, the white-knuckle intensity of the ‘73 one or the grandiosity of the post-apocalypse era, each section is highlighted by a rich involvement of the musical work.
Cloud Atlas is a film that leaves you thinking long after it’s over, whether you’re like me and continue to reflect on your favorite characters (Halle Berry’s Luisa Rey was mine), segments, performances or you dive more into the heady themes of inter-connectivity, predestination and revolution that are effectively employed across the grand landscape of the entire work — there is so much to digest here that you can’t truly appreciate it just upon that initial viewing experience. If you open yourself up to Cloud Atlasand it takes hold of you, it can truly amaze you on levels both sensory and emotional, and it will surely leave you thinking well after the credits roll (and be sure to stick around for the end credits to see all of the cast members in each of their many different roles). A truly unique, engaging and unquestionably epic experience, this is a movie unlike anything you will see this year, or perhaps ever again. Three hours long and when those credits rolled I was left craving so much more.
Ben Whishaw in Cloud Atlas
The second season of The Hour started off in a fashion similar to the first, with the characters taking precedence over the plot. This worked well in the first season and allowed for a back half that had a lot of punch when the narrative finally came full circle and connected with the characters they had been building all season. The second season alms for a similar approach, but unfortunately isn’t able to stick the landing this time. Once again, the character work is key and certainly the successful driving force of the program, but this time the plot just didn’t work out. It was all about relationships in the second season of The Hour, and each of our main characters had several they were working through.
Thankfully abandoning the love triangle plot of the first season (which worked well for a season but would have gotten stale), this go round gives our leads new love interests to navigate. Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw) returns from his extended leave with the surprise revelation that he’s married to the beautiful Camille (Lizzie Brocheré, who also featured on this season of American Horror Story). Bel Rowley (Romola Garai) is being pursued by a competitor from a rival news program, who is also pursuing Hector Madden (Dominic West) on a professional level. And as for the face of the fictional Hour program around which the series is based, Hector starts the season off behind bars and sees his marriage to Marnie (Oona Chaplin) come unglued before his eyes.
As was the case with the first season, where the show shines brightest is in its exploration of these dynamics between the primary characters. While the Bel and Freddie story takes very traditional beats (the only thing they love as much as their job is each other), the winning performances from Garai and Whishaw sell it in a way that leads to a strong emotional investment. The surprise of the season for me though was the unexpected progression of Hector and Marnie’s marriage, as the two fall apart due to his infidelities early on but eventually being apart makes them realize how much they mean to one another. While the Bel/Freddie path took on an expected course in every way, the Hector/Marnie one caught me by surprise and the ever impressive work of West and especially Chaplin (who for my money was the MVP this season) continued to bring genuine emotion to the portrayal of their characters.
That’s what worked this season. What didn’t work, unfortunately, was just about everything else. While the first season took a few episodes to establish itself and its characters, by the second half of the season it was really firing on all cylinders. This season, however, felt like it was never able to get off the ground. The driving narrative, centered around a club with a sex scandal that invovled many higher members of politics and the police force, attempted to add a personal element by involving Hector but it still never managed to be interesting. While the first season was a slow-burn that built to a grand finale, this season I felt my interest waning from week to week, hardly caring at all by the time it made its obvious moves in the finale. The supporting characters within the club and the police force were all thin types that bogged down the already tired narrative, and in the end it all came together far too conveniently for the members of The Hour, with informers practically crawling out of the woodwork after a season of them struggling to find just one.
This wasn’t the only problem with the season though, as it was also damaged by some meandering and ineffective subplots. Lix Storm (Anna Chancellor), my favorite character from the first season, was deservedly given more screentime but unfortunately her new plot drove her further away from the action than ever before. After the events of the first season, Anton Lesser’s character Clarence Fendley was replaced by newcomer Peter Capaldi’s Randall Brown and while it was a smart idea to give Brown and Lix a shared history together, the execution of that plot strand felt rather sloppy and unfocused. Speaking of sloppy and unfocused, there’s a racial plot that takes a major role in the opening episodes which is completely abandoned by the end and the unrequited love Wengrow(Joshua McGuire) has for Sissy (Lisa Greenwood) is forced to play through the same tired beats as it did the whole first season.
While the emotional impact of the main character’s dynamic was as potent as ever in the second season of The Hour, the narrative once again presented multiple problems and unfortunately wasn’t able to bring itself together the way it did in the first. With an uninteresting central plot and pointless subplots that led to nowhere, the second season found me losing interest as opposed to building it gradually. This season never had the kid of unique, effective pop that the first season had and it ultimately led to a rather forgettable string of episodes. The strong performances and work with the core characters helped me end up remaining on the slightly positive side with the season, but I really hope that it’s able to improve itself next year.