Karl du Fresne
The two most-hyped films showing on screens here this summer were Skyfall and The Hobbit. I can't muster the stamina to sit through all two hours and 50 minutes of Peter Jackson's latest epic (more on that later), but I did see the new James Bond movie.
I went with an ulterior motive. Several years ago I had seen Casino Royale, the first Bond film starring Daniel Craig, and thought it was a stinker. I walked out, as I often do these days if a film hasn't hooked me within the first 30 minutes.
I couldn't understand why so many critics were hailing Craig as the greatest Bond since Sean Connery. His acting style, if it could be dignified with that description, was so wooden it would have made a plank look animated.
I was similarly unimpressed with his one-dimensional performance in the only other film I have seen him in; a World War II action drama called Defiance in which he played a Jewish resistance leader.
But the release of Skyfall saw Craig again being lauded by the critics, some of whom even suggested he had now seized Connery's mantle as the greatest Bond ever. So I went along to check him out again, expecting to be as unimpressed as I had been with Casino Royale.
After all, there are few things more satisfying than having one's prejudices confirmed.
I wasn't prepared for what began to unfold on screen. The first half-hour of Skyfall is a cinematic tour de force. From the spellbinding title credits, (featuring Adele's theme song, arguably the best Bond tune since Nancy Sinatra sang You Only Live Twice in 1967) through the obligatory opening high-speed chase, I was swept along on an exhilarating ride that reminded me of those memorable action sequences in the original Indiana Jones films.
It was superbly shot and brilliantly edited. If any Bond film has produced a better opening pursuit, I haven't seen it.
What's more, I found myself warming to Craig. He seemed less of an automaton than in his first outing in the role. He even showed traces of the trademark humour familiar from earlier Bonds.
But sadly, (and you must have known there was a "but" coming) that first 30 minutes or so represented the best of the film.
What followed was formulaic Bond stuff - much of it highly implausible, as you'd expect, but entertaining enough: Exotic locations, beautiful but untrustworthy women and, of course, an evil and fiendishly clever mastermind (played by Javier Bardem, whom many will recall as the icily efficient assassin in the Coen Brothers' No Country For Old Men).
Had the director of Skyfall (Englishman Sam Mendes) called it quits after, say, 110 minutes, he might have had a respectable film - not a great film, but a respectable one, given the limitations of the genre. The action scenes were done well enough to take your mind off the plot, which grew sillier as it went on.
But just when I expected the film to neatly resolve itself, it lurched into a ludicrous, drawn-out climactic sequence that gave the impression of having been tacked on as an afterthought. If the first half-hour of Skyfall is as good as Bond films get, the last half-hour is preposterously, tediously bad.
It sees Bond and his boss, M, implausibly lead the villain and his gang of cardboard-cutout henchmen to a remote, abandoned Scottish mansion - the Skyfall of the title - where Bond had spent his childhood. There Bond is reunited with the faithful old family gamekeeper, played by Albert Finney, and together the three of them make a stand against the bad guys (although why they didn't just call in British security forces to do the job isn't explained).
I was going to describe Finney as a distinguished actor, but it should really be "formerly distinguished", since the 70-something thespian may not live long enough for his reputation to recover from this load of hokum. His performance is risibly bad and you can only wonder what possessed him to accept the part. He surely doesn't need the money.
Bardem too will have some way to go to regain the respect he previously enjoyed as a serious actor, but at least he has time on his side. In Skyfall he plays a pantomime villain, more comical than scary.
Having said all that, I accept that if I had chosen a career as a film director, I would have been a wretched failure. Films that I think are absurd, such as Skyfall, show how out of touch I am with public taste. It's already one of the most successful releases ever.
Avatar, which I considered laughably bad, was the highest-grossing film of all time. Peter Jackson's King Kong, which was just as silly, made $550 million and the film was one of the top five films of 2005.
Speaking of Jackson, I had intended to see The Hobbit, but was put off after watching bits of his overblown The Lord of the Rings trilogy on television during the Christmas-New Year period. I don't think I can bring myself to sit through another in the same mould.
Jackson is a clever man who has done great things for the New Zealand film industry, but his films are simply noisy spectacles - "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing", to quote Shakespeare. But clearly that's what appeals to modern cinema audiences, judging by the top-20 box office earners.
Movie fans don't want believable, human stories and nuanced characters.
They demand action, noise, fantasy and special effects by the truckload. And directors oblige and make films that not only insult the intelligence, but are overlong and undisciplined because the directors can't bring themselves to leave anything out.
The best two films I saw in 2012 were the American black comedy Bernie, starring Jack Black (which surprised me, because I'd never been a fan of his) and a German Cold War-era drama entitled Barbara, featuring a very good actress you've never heard of.
Both were low-budget, character-driven stories that used no special effects and didn't bombard their audiences with cringe-inducing noise. Both were immensely satisfying and needless to say, went virtually unnoticed.