Besides being absolutely fantastic and looking absolutely superb, there’s something a little different about the latest James Bond mission, Skyfall. Whether the presence of said difference is immediately noticeable or subtle and subversive is up to the audience, but one thing is clear: Skyfall is better because of its director. Yeah, screenwriter, cinematographer, Craig, Dench, etc. But the twenty-third entry into the longstanding 50 year old franchise has a particular man helming the picture: Sam Mendes.
Mendes won an Academy Award for Best Director for his work on the “is the grass really greener?” satire American Beauty, and has made his interesting mark on film with such works as Road to Perdition and Revolutionary Road, and his stage production revival of Cabaret. With each film, Mendes has added his own elements, evolving his style, etc. While I don’t necessarily want to jump into the “is he an auteur?” argument, I do want to make this point: his reputability as a director is a rare thing for the Bond franchise, and his expertise as such obviously shows in the work.
As mentioned in my review for Skyfall, the last time a director of that kind of caliber was hired for a Bond film was for The World is Not Enough. Michael Apted, director of the Up documentary series, didn’t quite make the impression other directors have made. One could argue that Martin Campbell is a good director, but his films, such as Edge of Darkness and Defenseless, are significantly smaller and hardly well received. (Yes, he also did Green Lantern and the Zorro films.) But his two entries into the Bond franchise, GoldenEye and Casino Royale, are two of the best in the entire history of James Bond.
There is Marc Forster, whose film Stranger Than Fiction ranks amongst my very favorites (though, that is partly due to the screenwriter, Zach Helm), and Finding Neverland, which is very imaginative, but his entry into the Bond series, Quantum of Solace, is one of the most disappointing and forgettable films ever. Just ever. I like to pretend it never happened. Poorly directed, incoherently edited, and with a rambling script (that remained unfinished due to the 2008 Writer’s Strike), Quantum of Solace is also the only Bond film to be a direct sequel. Which is, well, not a good thing. In an attempt to follow the adrenaline packed Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace is a half-assed rehash of all the things that made its predecessor great. So, there’s him.
So, besides Mendes, Forster, and Apted, Bond’s history of directors hasn’t been terribly start studded. More than half of the Bond films were directed by one of three people: Terrence Young (3), Guy Hamilton (4), or John Glen (5). Then there were some sporadic choices, but no one with the name that Mendes has, and pretty much no one with that much prestige.
But now that Bond has been directed by an Oscar winner, and a guy who was once married to Kate Winslet, what does that mean for the future of Bond and his missions? I’m not going to spend time speculating who might direct the next Bond films, but one has to wonder what kind of people will direct the Bond films.
Mendes definitely added an element, and with him he brought a team of incredible people. Roger Deakins for cinematography, John Logan for screenwriting, and Thomas Newman for the score. So, with a stunning arsenal of a crew, does that mean that the people behind Bond’s future missions could be just as prestigious as the director?
Mendes’ films, from American Beauty to Revolutionary Road, are marked by their seamless balance between darkness and style. The best of Skyfall feels at times like the best of a spy thriller worthy of Alfred Hitchcock. World weary though Bond may be, he’s still the best character the spy genre. So, thus Mendes’ dark, almost cynical look at Bond fits the film perfectly, blending it effortlessly with Roger Deakins’ gorgeous cinematography.
So, if other people take the helm of a Bond film, does that mean the Bond films will steadily get darker, more vulnerable, and look damn good? Will the next director continue to take Bond in a direction where a new canon is being created? Does this mean that the Bond films will look better, be directed better, — maybe just be better films? What do you think? What’s next for the quality of the Bond films?
As one of the few people I know who will forever admire Will Ferrell’s dramatic work in Marc Forster’s Stranger Than Fiction, I was very pleased to hear that the actor, comedian, and recent recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, would be returning to some dramatic work in the indie dramedy Everything Must Go. If you are one of the scattered admirers of what wonderful Fiction Ferrell brought to the screen previously, his performance in Everything Must Go is just as good, if not better. Granted, this film is far sadder and generally more depressing, but no less powerful.
Based on Raymond Carver’s short story “Why Don’t You Dance?”, Everything Must Go is about a man whose life manages to spiral completely downwards in a period of about two days. On the first day, Nick Halsey (Will Ferrell) is fired from his job, at which he has worked for sixteen years. Apparently, his alcoholism got in the way of things from time to time. Upon returning home, freshly let go, he find all of his belongings on his front lawn, with the locks changed, no access to the house, and a note from his wife, notifying that she is leaving him and wants him out of her life. Essentially, every piece of life that Nick wants or could care about is strewn on his front lawn, and he does what any person in that situation would do: he gives up completely.
Lounging in his chair, he befriends a young boy named Kenny, played by Christopher CJ Wallace (aka The Notorious BIG’s son), and befriends his pretty neighbor Samantha (Rebecca Hall), and with them, he goes on a path of redemption! No, not really. Amongst the several things this film does correctly, everything Must Go first and foremost avoids cliché. With such a sad sack protagonist and a depressing, worthy of redemption storyline, it could have easily fallen prey to being your usual sappy drama. While it isn’t as cynical or dark as Young Adult, it does treat its protagonist in a similar way by not letting its protagonist escape from their flaws and mistakes, and instead uses them as an opportunity to see the character develop in their bizarrely stunted ways. Nor does the film allow to overdevelop and thus give way to extreme sappiness and cliché.
The performance that Will Ferrell gives in the film is of utter nuance. The character of Nick is not one of your typical slackers, usually played for comedy, but instead a legitimate depressive alcoholic, someone whom you would initially want to have sympathy for, but any sense of that is driven away by the character’s cynicism. Though, this is not completely true. Ferrell’s nature charm on the screen, almost in a Tom Hanks way, where you know that he must be a nice guy despite that these bad things are happening to a relatively good person, lets the audience have a certain amount of sympathy for him without making the audience regret having that sympathy for a generally unlikable character. Is it because the audience feels a connection with someone who is going through a midlife crisis? Or rather, a person whose midlife crisis has simply crashed down on that person? Why does this character inspire so much emotional response from the audience? What makes the portrayal so tender, so beautiful at times, and so worthy of a watch and, even at times, a tear? It is all thanks to Ferrell, who hones his dramatic skills not only as an actor, but as a performer. One never gets the sense that Ferrell is not taking his role seriously. Rather than a well-known comedian playing a sad sack, Ferrell, who has played the same kind of character for laughs before, inhabits that character and becomes him. That is, essentially, the best an actor can do. That is what acting should be. There is no discernible façade between Will Ferrell the comedian and Nick Halsey the man who is sleeping on his lawn.
It is lucky that one gets such a superb performance from Ferrell, as the story, while just as depressing as listening to Nick’s life story on audiotape, could have presented itself as something rife with genre tropes. There seems to be something around every corner that could have jumped out and made the film a “recovery movie” or a “redemption movie”, usually the province of cable TV. The film’s unsympathetic, un-cynical, and un-cliché look at Nick’s world affords itself a strange realism. If anything, the film presents very human characters whose responses are often irrational, unjustified, but still worthy of our attention.
The supporting cast is excellent, with Christopher CJ Wallace as the kid neighbor who indirectly inspires Nick to get off his ass. Yes, Kenny’s mother works, and yes, we kind of feel bad for him, but, again, the audience is not guilted into any of these emotions or responses; they just seem to happen naturally. The same can be said of Rebecca Hall’s “new in town, married woman next door”. Her husband works and she is there alone while pregnant, but there is enough distance for the audience to relate on their own without being forced to. It is this naturalism that writer and director Dan Rush imbues the story with, devoid of overt pessimism or optimism.
While most of the film is dramatic, and fairly depressing, there are light strokes of comedy brushed in that are definitely amusing. The style and sense of humor is not dark or black, per se, but balances the film out so that the drama and comedy juxtapose one another in terms of the tone in the film. Nor does it feel out of the blue or random in anyway. I guess the key word one could use to describe how good this film is is “natural”. Everything about it just comes together in a neat package, with the right rhythm and cadence.
Dan Rush’s dramedy is placidly paced and naturalistic in every way, from its story to its characters. Although it sometimes teeters on the edge of making the audience want to weep for a thousand years with a pint of ice cream at their side, it balances the sad story with mildly uplifting scenarios and amusing moments of humor. However, it is Will Ferrell’s excellent, almost perfect performance that makes the film worth seeing. Much like Ferrell’s previous venture into dramatic work in, this film that sometimes life is indeed stranger than fiction. Also, more depressing.