Sense of Wonder: Oscars snub cinefantastique – again

ARGO and LIFE OF PI won big at the 85th Oscars.

Hopefully, the above headline needs no explanation, but in case you have any doubts, we’re talking about cinefantastique the genre, not Cinefantastique, the online magazine of horror, fantasy, and science fiction cinema. Although there have been a few exceptions in recent decades (e.g., a Best Picture win for THE LORD OF THE RINGS: RETURN OF THE KING), the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences traditionally under-represents imagi-movies at each year’s Oscars, and the 2013 ceremony was no exception – and no surprise, since few horror, fantasy, and science fiction films were even nominated.
It is not as if there were not some worthy contenders from 2012: CLOUD ATLAS, RISE OF THE GUARDIANS, ROBOT AND FRANK (especially Frank Langella’s performance), THE SECRET WORLD OF ARIETTY, and THE DARK KNIGHT RISES – to name a few. However, even in categories that traditionally offer a glimmer of hope (technical areas such as special effects), the genre went ignored.
ARGO: Ben Affleck directs John Goodman as John Chambers, the real-life makeup artists who won an Oscar for PLANET OF THE APES.
Best Picture ARGO: Ben Affleck directs John Goodman as John Chambers, the real-life makeup artists who won an Oscar for PLANET OF THE APES.

The only solace, such as it was, took the form of two borderline titles that won in several categories: ARGO and LIFE OF PI. The former is a fact-based political thriller, but its plot is based around using a phony science fiction film as cover to spirit hostages out of Iran, and the film actually uses the concept of sci-fi fantasy heroism in pop culture as a yardstick by which to measure real-life accomplishment. The latter uses effects-heavy imagery to recount one person’s lonely trek aboard a lifeboat in a way that questions the reality of the events, which may be just a personal fantasy.
ARGO took home the Academy Awards for Best Picture, Film Editing (William Goldenberg), and Adapted Screenplay (Chris Terrio). I cannot exactly argue with ARGO’s Best Picture win – it is a great movie – but I would have preferred to see THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (obviously impossible) or at least LES MISERABLES.
LIFE OF PI earned Oscar gold for Visual FX.
LIFE OF PI earned Oscar gold for Cinematography and Visual FX.

LIFE OF PI won for Cinematography (Claudio Miranda), Directing (Ang Lee), Music (Mychael Danna), and Visual Effects (Bill Westernhofer, Guillaume Rocheron, Erik-Jan De Boer, Donald R. Elliott).
The win for Visual Effects is not a big surprise, but it is something of a disappointment since this is one of the few categories in which outright science fiction films have a shot at the gold statuette. This year’s nominees included THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY, THE AVENGERS, PROMETHEUS, and SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN. Presumably, THE HOBBIT and PROMETHEUS lost because voters felt they had seen the effects before in LORD OF THE RINGS and ALIEN, respectively. THE AVENGERS looked too much like TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON. And SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN lost because it was simply a bad movie, and the Academy seldom singles out isolated pockets of quality in otherwise undeserving films.
Merida in BRAVE from Disney-Pixar
Merida in BRAVE from Disney-Pixar

In the Animated Feature category, voters apparently could not decide on a good film, so they gave the award to BRAVE for being a Pixar Production. Personally, I think nominee FRANKENWEENIE is seriously flawed in the story department, but even so, it far surpasses Pixar’s latest step into mediocrity. Easily the best animated film of the year – THE SECRET WORLD OF ARIETTY – was not even nominated, nor was the worthy RISE OF THE GUARDIANS.
At least PAPERMAN took home the gold in the Animated Short category – the film was the only good thing about having to sit through WRECK IT RALPH, which incredibly was nominated in the Feature Animated category, along with the equally unworthy PARANORMAN. (I have not seen the other nominee THE PIRATES! BAND OF MISFITS, so I will reserve comment.)
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SKYFALL, the latest James Bond adventure, is less science fiction-oriented than many of its predecessors, but it still straddles the borderline of the genre. The film earned several nominations, including Cinematography, Original Score, and Sound Editing, and won for Sound Editing (Per Hallberg and Karen Baker Landers) and Best Song (Adele Adkins and Paul Epworth). Adele (who goes simply by her first name) performed the song during the ceremony – the first winner for a franchise noted for its memorable theme songs. (Shirley Bassey was also on hand to perform the title tune from 1963’s GOLDFINGER, which really set the standard for 007 songs.)
The Best Song win for “Skyfall” is one of the few decisions I can truly applaud for the 85 Annual Academy Awards. The song is the best thing about the film – and one of the best James Bond them song in over nearly two decades.
THE HOBBIT, Peter Jackson’s disappointing prequel to his LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, failed to impress Oscar voters. Nominated in three categories – Makeup, Production Design, and Visual Effects – the film went zero for three on Oscar night.
The terrible SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN was had to chances to win – for Costumes and Visual Effects – but lost out in both categories.
BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD (another borderline effort, which includes some fantasy creatures) was nominated in categories for Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay, and Directing but came away empty handed.
So there you have it. It took AMPAS only 76 years to finally award a Best Picture win to a fantasy film (the aforementioned LORD OF THE RINGS: RETURN OF THE KING). Here’s hoping we don’t have to wait another seven decades for history to repeat itself.

SKYFALL: CFQ Spotlight Podcast 3:45.1

Daniel Craig as James Bond
That's a Gun in Your Hand and We're Happy to See You: Daniel Craig is Bond again in SKYFALL,

If box office numbers are to be believed, we’ve been suffering a severe case of Bond withdrawal. SKYFALL, the newest film featuring secret agent 007, had its best opening of any Bond film as the franchise celebrates its 50th anniversary. And critical consensus has so far fallen into line with that of ecstatic audiences, contending that the latest adventure — in which Bond, James Bond (Daniel Craig) battles a computer mastermind (Javier Bardem) determined to take down MI6’s M (Judi Dench) for painfully personal reasons – is among the franchise’s best.
But simple plaudits are not enough for the Spotlight gang, and so Cinefantastique Online’s Steve Biodrowski, Lawrence French, and Dan Persons delve deep into the details of this high-stakes attempt to revive and redefine the long-running series, debating where the film achieved its goals, where it exceeded expectations, and where it fell short. It’s one of our liveliest conversations, fitting for a film that demonstrates that it’s not too late for an old cold-warrior to undergo a rebirth.
Plus: What’s coming to theaters this Friday.

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Skyfall: film review

skyfall-650 cropped
The new 007 adventure reaches for the sky but falls short. The down-slide, though disappointing, is not enough to prevent SKYFALL from being a good James Bond film. It is, however, enough to flatten the film’s higher aspiration – which is to be something more than just a good Bond film. SKYFALL wants to rework the 007 formula into something resembling a serious drama – a combination of blockbuster action with the gravitas of THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD. The synthesis works for approximately the first half, lifting SKYFALL to a level seldom seen in the franchise, but then the drama begins to dissipate under the demands of the de rigueur action set pieces, dropping SKYFALL back down to familiar, though still enjoyable, levels.

Bond attempts to retrieve a stolen hard drive in the traditional action-packed pre-credits sequence.
Bond attempts to retrieve a stolen hard drive in the traditional action-packed pre-credits sequence.

The tone is set immediately. While attempting to retrieve a stolen hard drive (whose contents are the MacGuffin that will drive the plot), Bond disobeys an order from M: he stops to render first aid to a wounded comrade instead of pursing the stolen disc. The sense of life-and-death consequences – of treating a peripheral character like a person and not just an expendable red shirt – lends an air of credibility that holds SKYFALL aloft for quite a while. Yes, we are going to see over-the-top action and incredible heroics, but all of this stuff will be portrayed as if it really matters. Until it doesn’t.
I could pinpoint the exact moment when it starts to go wrong, but I don’t want to spoil the film. Let’s just say that SKYFALL does an excellent job of setting up what seems like a central relationship, and then Bond fails the character miserably. Which would not be so bad – fallibility is part of what makes Daniel Craig’s 007 so compelling. What hurts is that the failure is never allowed to register. Instead, it is drowned out by the triumphant arrival of the cavalry to the rescue, backed by the familiar “James Bond Theme – too late, unfortunately, to help the person who just paid the price for helping Bond.
Similar things have happened in past Bond movies, but in the Sean Connery Days, 007 would have been righteously angry and looking for revenge; M would have demanded he maintain his professional attachment if he wanted to remain on the mission; and Bond would have agreed  verbally – while letting his expression show us that he still took matters very seriously, and there would be a reckoning. None of that happens in SKYFALL. Bond’s little slip-up is simply forgotten. And with it goes any chance of the film registering as heavy-hitter it aims to be.
What remains is still quite enjoyable, and there are even a few remaining moments that register with some emotional resonance, but you simply cannot maintain a sense of crucial, high-stakes dramaturgy when an entire subway train is destroyed for the sheer spectacle, without an eyelash ever batted about the loss of life (of which, conveniently, there appears to be none – though no one ever says for sure, because who cares – it’s an entire subway train nearly crashing on top of 007’s head!) At that point, we’re back in movie fantasy land, which is a fun place to be, but not a place where soul-searching about the rightness of one’s actions amounts to much.


The script by Neil Purvis & Robert Wade and John Logan makes an attempt to dig deeper into the characters than ever before, but the effort is inconsistent. The strategy of producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson appears to be to get a draft from Purvis and Wade (veterans of the franchise since THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH), presumably with all the traditional elements in place (guns, gadgets, girls), and then they drag in another writer to add some dramatic heft. This worked excellently well in CASINO ROYALE (2006), perhaps because there was an Ian Fleming novel to provide the basic plot outline, but not so much in QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008). In SKYFALL, we get a mixed bag – definitely better than QUANTUM but not up to the level of CASINO.
Part of the problem is that Wade and Purvis seem to have run out of ideas. The screenplay for SKYFALL recycles bits and pieces from the Pierce Brosnan films. As in THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH, there is an attack on MI6 headquarters, and M is more personally involved in what follows. As in GOLDENEYE, Bond is pitted against a former MI6 agent, with a huge chip on his shoulder for past indiscretions committed by the British state – or at least by its agents.

Judi Dench as M
Judi Dench as M

One idea that is worth recycling is the theme of relevence (which, rather fortuitously, is something I addressed in Sense of Wonder: James Bond at 50, which you can read here). Whereas the Brosnan Bond films merely suggested that world conflict was changing in a way that made the service of a lone assassin preferable to the marching of armies, SKYFALL spells it out specifically, in a third-act scene wherein M (Judi Dench) defends not only her herself but also the organization she heads.
It’s a compelling moment – one of the best in the film – but it is slightly undercut by the fact that the plot is built around a catastrophic failure on the part of MI6 – a fact that is never fully reckoned in the script. Perhaps there is a delicious irony intended: just as Bond often wants to stick with a case, even after his professional detachment has been undercut by personal failure, so does M. The difference is that M should know better.
Perhaps she does, but the film does not quite bring the point home. Near the end, she wonders aloud whether she “f-cked up,” but Bond tells her no. They may just be words of comfort, but the film seems to want us to take them literally, in spite of on-screen evidence to the contrary.


Daniel Craig as James Bond
Daniel Craig as James Bond

Daniel Craig remains an excellent James Bond – probably the only serious threat to Connery’s reputation as the all-time best. In SKYFALL, Craig looks a bit world-weary and beaten down; the job is getting to 007, and it shows, but he refuses to give up, pressing on as if that is the only thing he knows how to do. More than any previous actor, he continues to capture Bond’s driven nature, the determination lurking beneath the polished facade that allows him to move smoothly through casinos and other exotic locations. And behind those cold blue eyes, you see the occasional hint of compassion, without it ever seeming like a weakness. The little grace note lends a touch of greatness to Craig’s Bond and to the film (until it is swept aside by subway trains and helicopters)
Javiar Bardem, as SKYFALL’s villain is a bit of a near-miss. A former MI6 agent gone rogue, out for revenge against M,  Silva is set up as Bond’s doppleganger – a dark mirror image of our hero – but the reflection goes almost unnoticed. (Both Silva and Bond have been, in some sense, betrayed by M, but the connection never amounts to anything.) In an effort at complexity, the character is given several attributes, but they do not add up to a satisfying whole. The script seems uncertain whether to portray Silva as Hannibal Lecter or as Norman Bates; Bardem seems uncertain whether to play the role as Raul Julia or as Christopher Walken. The result is weird enough to be interesting, but the actor is never able to convey Silva’s obsession with M in a convincing enough way to justify his actions as anything other than a plot contrivance (it’s one of those “he doesn’t want to kill her quick; he wants to make her suffer” scenarios).
Judi Dench is excellent as always as the cold-blood M, who must weigh human considerations of loyalty at a lower value than the practical necessity of a successful mission. To a large extent she achieves the miraculous, making the character relatable (if not outright sympathetic) in her concern for doing a good job – even though, for most of the film, that job consists of cleaning up a considerable mess for which her department is responsible. If M were not a major player in the Bond franchise, her character here would be a minor villain in this piece – someone who needed to pay for her mistakes or at least get out of the way and let someone else fix them. Instead, we’re supposed to want to see M see it through, and thanks to Dench, we do.
Skyfall 2012 Berenice Mahlore
Berenice Marlohe as Severine

Berenice Marlohe as Severine is the best Bond girl since…well, Eva Green wasn’t long enough ago to convey just how good Marlohe is, but the camera loves her, and director Sam Mendes lets the lens linger as she sizes up 007, deciding whether or not to trust him when he makes his pitch for her to switch sides.  Naomie Harris as Eve cannot quite compete in this regard, but then she is not quite the traditional Bond Girl: she doesn’t sleep with him, for one thing – but then the film follows up on this with a clever little surprise that pays off quite nicely.
Ben Whishaw is a hoot as as the new head of Q Division. At first he seems too young for the role – a sop to the nerd-geeks in the audience – but there is some hint of Desmond Llwelyn in his face, and a little bit of the attitude in his voice, though on a somewhat friendlier level.
Ralph Fiennes is fine as Gareth Mallory, a seeming bureaucrat who in a pinch turns out to be a comrade in arms. Rory Kinear offers solid support as M’s right-hand man, Tanner. And Albert Finney lends a touch of class in a role that seems to have been designed for Sean Connery: his Kincade, a gamekeeper who shows up on the old Bond estate, manages to almost resurrect SKYFALL’s lost credibility; for a moment, we again sense fear in the face of danger, without the comfort of knowing that it will all turn out okay just because the formula demands it.


The locations look spectacular in IMAX.
The locations look spectacular in IMAX.

Though shot in standard format, SKYFALL has been released in IMAX engagements (“enhanced for IMAX” is how the ads read). The big-screen format is perfectly suited for capturing spectacular action and lavish locations; in particular, the Hong Kong sequence – with its neon lights, glass-and-steel skyscrapers, and electronic billboard imagery eerily reflected into the camera lens – is as eye-filling as anything displayed in any previous Bond film. And IMAX, even more than 3-D is the best enhancer of any scene that involves staring downward from a great height.
Nevertheless, for all its visual splendor, SKYFALL never quite equals the vertiginous spectacle of MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 3, which truly used the IMAX screen to its fullest potential.


The Hollywood Closet opens wide in this scene from SKYFALL
The Hollywood Closet opens wide in this scene from SKYFALL

In the inevitable interrogation scene between Silva and Bond (with the later tied immobile in a chair), Bardem’s character lets his hand linger over 007, tracing a bullet wound in Bond’s chest. The idea seems to be that Bond can withstand torture (as in CASINO ROYALE), but homoerotic advances may really get under his skin. It’s an interesting moment but also a trifle stereotypical: we’re back to the evil gay villain. Strangely, judging from interviews, the filmmakers seem to think they were doing something new here or at least bringing out something that had been hidden in the closet. Guess they overlooked Charles Gray’s fruity interpretation of Blofeld in DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER – not to mention the  pair of overtly gay hitmen on the supervillain’s payroll.


CASINO ROYALE functioned as a sort of “Bond Begins Again” story, reintroducing the character as a younger, inexperienced agent, who grew before our eyes into something resembling the familiar figure we had seen in past films. More or less ignoring the events of QUANTUM OF SOLACE, the new SKYFALL takes Bond’s evolution a step further, ending with a final scene that puts a few more missing pieces of the old puzzle into place.
It is an amusing conceit for a quiet little denouement after the action has ended; however, it raises troubling questions about 007’s future. The suggestion seems to be that, with Bond’s maturation complete, subsequent films can abandon the drama and get back to the old familiar formula. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen.


Bond presses the old Aston Martin back into service.
Bond presses the old Aston Martin back into service.

Enough of what’s wrong with SKYFALL. For all the flaws that bring it back to earth, the film is loaded with great moments that deserve mentioning:

  • The Opening Sequence: This begins as a conventional chase but ramps up into an incredible set-piece, with Bond manipulating a power shovel on the flatbed of a train racing down the tracks. Absolutely spectacular – a stunning opener that ranks among the best the series has ever seen.
  • The Theme Song: Sung by Adele, the SKYFALL theme harkens back to the glory days of Shirley Bassey and GOLDFINGER, but it doesn’t sound out of date or even particularly retro. It’s been awhile since a Bond title song managed the trick of sounding both appropriate for the character and appropriate for the times. The song is also backed by a nice opening title sequence.
  • Komodo Dragons: In the great tradition of dangerous animals kept in open pits, SKYFALL offers us a casino with Komodo Dragons on display. Needless to say, a fight scene winds up with Bond and his adversary falling in, providing an unexpected lunch break for the big lizards. Now if only they had laser beams attached to their heads…
  • The Sexy Shaving Scene: Eve lends a hand with Bond’s straight razor, creating an incredibly erotic tease that goes deliberately unfulfilled. You’ll have to wait until the end to see why Eve cannot be allowed to sleep with 007.
  • Severine’s Long, Long, Long Gaze into Bond’s Eyes: It’s a scene we’ve seen before, as Bond convinces one of the bad guy’s girls that he can help her. She wants to believe him, too, but she’s not sure she does. Without doing anything obvious, actress Marlohe lets us see the doubt forming into a decision behind her eyes – a rather fateful decision, as it turns out.
  • Giant Jelly-Fish: They’re not really giant; they’re just images projected large, looming in the background of the Hong Kong sequence, distracting Bond’s eye from the target. God, they’re beautiful.
  • The Return of the Aston Martin: beating a phony retreat near the end (actually laying a trap for Silva), Bond switches to a supposedly less ostentatious car – which we in the audience recognize as the old Aston Martin from GOLDFINGER. Bond even fingers the ejector seat button when M’s griping gets a little too annoying.

Q doesn't have much to offer Bond at their first meeting.
Q doesn't have much to offer Bond at their first meeting.

Continuing the trend begun in CASINO ROYALE, SKYFALL downplays the science-fiction element that has been with the series since its inception, mostly in the form of the improbable gadgets Q Branch develops for Bond’s use. Here, Q offers only a radio transmitter and a gun with a handle that recognizes Bond’s grip. “Not exactly Christmas,” Bond quips, to which Q replies that exploding pens are out of style these days.
Perhaps it’s not so much that SKYFALL downplays the fantastical elements; it may be that reality has caught up with 007. The film is filled with computer hacking, tracking devices, and encryption techniques that even a decade or so ago might have seemed incredible – or at least a little bit ahead of the curve. Now, they are almost commonplace.


Skyfall posterSKYFALL may not be another CASINO ROYALE, but it ranks higher than almost anything else the franchise has had to offer for over a decade. Even if not all of its ideas and intentions are fully realized, it says something good about the film that we can even talk about it having ideas. Whatever its failings, SKYFALL retains the essential strengths of Craig’s James Bond. I suspect that a second viewing, once disappointment has been set aside, will reveal the simple entertainment value in a fuller light. And as I say, the repeat-viewing appeal of Komodo Dragons is not to be under-estimated.
SKYFALL (Sony Pictures, November 9, 2012). Directed by Sam Mendes. Written by Neal Purvis & Robert Wade and John Logan, based on the character created by Ian Fleming. Cast: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Berenice Marlohe, Albert Finney, Ben Whishaw, Rory Kinnear, Ola Rapace, Helen McCrory, Nicholas Woodeson, Bill Buckhurts.

Skyfall opens November 9

Sony Pictures releases the 23rd adventure in the long-running James Bond franchise. In SKYFALL, Bond’s loyalty to M is tested as her past comes back to haunt her. As MI6 comes under attack, 007 must track down and destroy the threat, no matter how personal the cost.Daniel Craig returns  as Ian Fleming’s 007.
Director: Sam Mendes. Writers: John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Patrick Marber, based on the character created by Ian Fleming. Cast: Daniel Craig, Ralph Fiennes, Javier Bardem, Ben Whishaw, Helen McCrory, Berenice Marlohe, Naomie Harris, Judi Dench, Albert Finney, Ola Rapace.
Daniel Craig as James Bond in SKYFALL

Bond 23 is 'Skyfall'

Via the Press Release:skyfall_announcement

Producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli today presented the cast of the 23rd James Bond adventure, entitled SKYFALL.
The film, from Albert R. Broccoli’s Eon Productions, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, and Sony Pictures Entertainment, is directed by Academy Award® winner Sam Mendes and stars Daniel Craig, who returns for his third film as James Bond 007.
The screenplay is written by Neal Purvis & Robert Wade and John Logan. SKYFALL, which goes into production on Monday, November 7th, will begin its worldwide roll-out in the UK and Ireland on October 26th 2012 and in North America on November 9th 2012.
Joining Michael G. Wilson, Barbara Broccoli and Director Sam Mendes were members of the cast of SKYFALL, including: Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Dame Judi Dench, Naomie Harris and Berenice Marlohe. The filmmakers also announced Ralph Fiennes, Albert Finney and Ben Whishaw.
In SKYFALL, Bond’s loyalty to M is tested as her past comes back to haunt her. As MI6 comes under attack, 007 must track down and destroy the threat, no matter how personal the cost.
“We’re so delighted to have Sam Mendes direct SKYFALL and be working once again with Daniel Craig. We’ve a great script, an extraordinary cast and an incredibly talented creative team for this latest James Bond adventure,” said Wilson and Broccoli.
The Director of Photography is Roger Deakins, a nine-time Oscar® nominee who previously shot the films Jarhead and Revolutionary Road for Mendes. The Production Designer is Oscar® winner Dennis Gassner, who previously designed Quantum of Solace and collaborated with Mendes on the films Road to Perdition and Jarhead.
The Editor is Stuart Baird, A.C.E., whose many credits include Casino Royale.
Jany Temime, whose many credits include the Harry Potter series, In Bruges, and Children of Men, is the Costume Designer. Action specialist Alexander Witt is the 2nd Unit Director.
Gary Powell is Stunt Co-ordinator, Chris Corbould is SFX Supervisor and Steve Begg is Visual Effects Supervisor, all of whom have worked on previous Bond films.