Epic ‘Skyfall,’ uneven ‘Quartet,’ magical ‘Place’

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FS, Contributing Writer

“Skyfall”

The James Bond character has had its ups and downs over the decades, but the Daniel Craig pictures, which reach their third installment with Skyfall (wide release), represent a renaissance in the long-running spy franchise, and this one is the best so far.

In fact, it’s arguably the best Bond movie ever made, a smoothly satisfying blend of the old and the new.

On the one hand, it retains bits and pieces of earlier entries – references to martinis shaken and not stirred, and even a reappearance of the venerable Aston Martin that was a symbol of the Bond elegance. And it features a colorful villain, played by Javier Bardem with the customary flamboyance.

But it situates them within a story that humanizes Bond – putting him in actual jeopardy rather than cartoon-like situations and portraying him as deeply flawed rather than superhuman. And instead of a plot focusing on some shadowy group bent on world domination, it centers on a direct threat to MI6 and its head, M (Judi Dench). The old saw, “This time, it’s personal,” applies here, but in a good way.

Skyfall also reveals a good deal about Bond’s early life – and M’s long career – in the process, ending in a confrontation that’s as intimate as it is spectacular.

But while looking backward, the picture also prepares for the future, not only introducing a young new Q (Ben Whishaw) who’s more computer geek than gadget creator, but other figures who point to a rebooting of the series as a whole while simultaneously providing a bridge to the past.

Featuring a winning turn from veteran Albert Finney, sophisticated direction from Sam Mendes (American Beauty) and gorgeous cinematography by veteran Roger Deakins, as well as some spectacular action setpieces, Skyfall represents a high point for the character of James Bond as well as for audiences – both longtime fans and others who may have soured on him over time.

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“A Late Quartet”

There’s a strange mixture of finesse and clumsiness in A Late Quartet (Angelika), which juxtaposes a string quartet’s rehearsal of a piece – Beethoven’s “Opus 131” – against the emotional turmoil that strikes the group at the same time.

The catalyst of the crisis is the cellist’s discovery that he’s suffering from the initial stages of Parkinson’s disease, which will make it impossible for him to continue playing. That’s further complicated by the desire of the second violinist to take the first chair position, and the first violinist’s affair with the second violinist’s beautiful young daughter.

The structure of the picture, in which the dramatic turns are designed to mirror the seven movements of the Beethoven quartet, is quite sophisticated.

But unfortunately the effect is undermined by the melodramatic character of the personal controversies, especially the relationship between the rigid, perfectionist first violinist and the daughter of his more expressive, passionate colleague. At one point the script descends into dumb farce, when the girl’s mother – who happens to be the quartet’s violist – unexpectedly visits her daughter’s apartment when her colleague is there, and the violinist escapes onto a fire escape.

But while A Late Quartet is flawed, it boasts a superb ensemble cast, anchored by Christopher Walken, who underplays beautifully as the stricken cellist, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the artist who feels his talent is insufficiently appreciated and finds his domestic life falling apart around him.

It’s just a pity that their stellar work is somewhat undermined by plot stumbles.

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“This Must Be The Place”

Connoisseurs of remarkable acting should also check out This Must Be The Place (Magnolia), a charming – and touching – film from Italian writer-director Paolo Sorrentino marked by an extraordinary turn by Sean Penn.

Penn plays Cheyenne, an aging, physically ruined rock icon who’s called to the deathbed of his father, a member of an ultra-orthodox Jewish community in a Hasidic area of New York City, whom he has not spoken to in decades. Cheyenne takes up the old man’s mission to track down and punish an elderly German who served as a guard in Auschwitz.

That results in a strange road trip across America that Sorrentino and his crew present in a painterly magical-realist style while introducing a succession of curious characters, including a talkative fellow played by Harry Dean Stanton, and David Byrne, who sings the song that gives the movie its title.

Throughout the film, Penn, walking half bent over at a deliberate pace and with heavy makeup and stringy hair he keeps blowing out of his eyes, is riveting, making the shy, diffident Cheyenne both funny and sympathetic. And he never strays out of character to wink at the audience.

This Must Be The Place is sly, unpredictable and in the final reel even profound. It’s a genuine find, and boasts one of the year’s most entrancing performances.

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