Is there any phrase that we should trust less than “return to form”? In music, before they sensibly decided to call it a day, every recent R.E.M. album was labeled with that dreaded description. In film, it’s always associated with new movies released by the once great Woody Allen.
And yet behold! A new contender has emerged, with Skyfall, the 23rd installment of the James Bond franchise. The film is receiving almost universal praise, just four years after the critically derided Quantum of Solace — itself a sequel to Casino Royale, hailed in 2006 as a return to form following 2002′s Die Another Day.
What’s taking place to justify the “return to form” tag? Well, if you believe everything you’ve read, we’re in the realms of an origin story to rank with Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. No surprise, since it’s helmed by a director of similar critical regard, American Beauty auteur Sam Mendes. The staggeringly good pre-credit sequence (courtesy cinematographer Roger Deakins, who still, shamefully, doesn’t have an Oscar to his name), set in Istanbul, shows the dire state of Britain’s intelligence organization. Fingers are pointed at Javier Bardem’s Silva, who seems set on taking down Bond and his boss, M (played once again by Judi Dench, who truly gets to sink her teeth into this often neglected role).
Both in Bond’s native Britain – where much of Skyfall satisfyingly takes place – and America, the critics have joined in near unanimous approval. “A supremely enjoyable and even sentimental spectacle, giving us an attractively human (though never humane) Bond. Despite the title, he is a hero who just keeps on defying gravity,” concludes the Guardian. The beginning of Entertainment Weekly’s review is on similar lines: “Of all the marvelous feats that make Skyfall such a thrilling addition to the James Bond movie canon, the greatest may be that the 23rd entry conveys the melancholy of loss, mortality, and future-shock anxiety, while at the same time leaving us plenty of space to enjoy one of the most complexly unhinged villains in Bond history.” The AP simply opts for out-and-out love, noting that Skyfall is, “simultaneously thrilling and meaty, this is easily one of the best entries ever in the 50-year, 23-film series, led once again by an actor who’s the best Bond yet in Daniel Craig.” Who knows where they go from here, but if Mendes comes back to direct Bond 24 – and it’s believed that he hasn’t yet ruled it out – perhaps he and Craig can consign the phrase “return to form” to 00Heaven.
How deep into Lincoln did Daniel Day-Lewis go? As TIME’s masterful profile revealed, the famously intense actor got into his role as the legendary American president by even texting as if he were Abraham Lincoln. “He’d sign it, ‘Yours, A.’,” noted costar Sally Field.
Day-Lewis may indeed be up for his third Best Actor Oscar nod in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, which covers the 16th president’s final months in office. Considering that America was roiled by war and the possibility of change – so what else is new? – Spielberg focuses on whether his leading light can bring about an end to the conflict, unite the people and abolish slavery for good.
And the word “good” is merely a jumping off point when it comes to reviewers summing up Lincoln. “Though historians will surely find room to quibble, every choice Day-Lewis makes lends dignity and gravitas to America’s most revered figure,” reckons Variety. “Lincoln is a very polished production with a welcome lack of flash. In this era of outlandish campaigning, it’s nice to cut through the hype and get real substance and insight into a politician,” concludes Box Office magazine. And the Hollywood Reporter comments that “it’s a conscientious piece of work very much in the service of the material, in the manner of the good old Hollywood pros, without frills or grandiosity.”
VIDEO: Daniel Day-Lewis and Steven Spielberg Q & A
NewsFeed’s Flicks Pick: Skyfall will do better box office but Lincoln has more gravitas. But because it’s difficult to be surprised that Spielberg and Day-Lewis have combined to such effect, Bond wins out — because few saw yet another return to form coming.