So, the sky did not fall after all: three years after the rules of the James Bond franchise were mildly rewritten with some personal business, another instalment comes rumbling along, and it’s much like the ones that went before it.
Strenuously so, in fact, as the very title of Spectre (Fox, 12) explicitly harks back to the chief antagonist force of Bond’s most swinging era, now minus the cold war trappings. Indeed, the whole film plays as a kind of eager 007 megamix, mashing together a heap of narrative and iconographic elements from the series’ history: here an ejector-seat expulsion, there a fluffy white cat (with whatever that implies about its attendant owner). Sam Mendes made a significant effort in Skyfall to redesign the Bond film as prestige cinema; in his second outing he’s at equally dedicated pains to reset the status quo.
The 148-minute result is insecurely overstuffed, as if panicked about the fan pushback that might result from leaving out any one expected detail. It’s also, somehow, narratively sparse amid the lushly dressed bulk. As our grim-jawed hero seeks the inner sanctum of the eponymous syndicate, one ravishing location cues another, like so many time-stalling clues on a treasure map. But the chase, if shorter on surprise than it sets out to be, remains sweepingly silly fun. A Bond film is only as good as its daftest set pieces, after all. Nobody will care to remember the story here, but an introductory pinball scrabble through Mexico City, skipping fleetly from crumbling buildings to careering helicopter, is one for the series’ all-time scrapbook.
I’m writing this column from the Berlin film festival, where Taxi Tehran (New Wave, 12), Jafar Panahi’s nimble fusion of drolly observational street cinema and piqued personal protest, took the Golden Bear last February. A year on, does it live up to the boldest claims made for it then? I’m not sure. Of the three Panahi films made under restricted, covert conditions following his 2010 arrest for propaganda against the Iranian administration, 2011’s This Is Not a Film remains the most movingly fired-up. In his latest, which sees Panahi posing as a cab driver ferrying a selection of rhetoric-spouting fares, politics take a back seat to the slightly self-admiring ambiguity of his coy “documentary” technique: it’s the playfulness of the exercise, more than its resultant message, that sticks.
For a more solemn critique of Iranian social injustice, head to Mubi.com, which has been paying mini-tribute this week to the film-makers Kim Longinotto and Ziba Mir-Hosseini. Programmed back-to-back on the streaming site’s menu, their documentary films Divorce Iranian Style (1998) and Runaway (2001) offer separate but mutually enhancing examinations of gender politics in Iran. Like a precursor to Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, the former focuses stringently on the legalities of the divorce process in the country, while the latter traces the pasts and potential futures of five girls seeking refuge in Tehran from abusive family lives. Nearly two decades on, the films remain milestones of UK documentary, marked by a compassionate depth of gaze that refuses to complacently rest on worthy subjects.
Back to the DVD slate, where only two good-humoured twists on date-movie formula make even a passing bid for your time. A sweetly randy tale of ex-lovers trying to maintain a platonic relationship, Leslye Headland’s Sleeping With Other People (Icon, 15) feigns to satirise romcom tropes, but finally has too much sincere affection for the genre to resist them – which is fine, since the writing is quick and lively, and stars Jason Sudeikis and Alison Brie have an actual connection. Meanwhile,Nina Forever(Studiocanal, 18) follows a few too many recent comedies in adding zombification to the boy-meets-girl formula, but British directing duo Chris and Ben Blaine give it some unsettlingly heightened style.
Would that the same could be said for Dark Places (eOne, 15), a flatly lurid mystery of unseemly doings in America’s cornfield belt that exhausts the possibilities of Charlize Theron’s finest weary scowl. Adapted from the Gillian Flynn novel, it’s more a case of Too Far Gone Girl. Bernard Rose, the lately slumming director of Candyman, attempts an LA-set Mary Shelley update in Frankenstein (Signature, 18), with commendably uncynical but otherwise spotty results.
Finally, Bill Bryson’s bestselling prose is poorly served in the ghastly A Walk in the Woods (eOne, 15), in which Robert Redford and Nick Nolte battle to simultaneously out-grizzle and out-twinkle each other while hiking the Appalachian Trail. The services of The Revenant’s CGI bear have rarely been more sorely required.
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