Sunday, March 31, 2013

Fiction Review: "Herodias," Gustave Flaubert

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Gustave Flaubert’s “Herodias” is the last of the three stories that make up his Three Tales collection. It’s a rigorous, near-documentary retelling of the circumstances of the death of John the Baptist. Flaubert’s attention to every detail--every word, for that matter--is such that one cannot read it at the pace one normally takes in a prose story. It is as demanding a read as complex poetry, and it rewards one’s concentration. It doesn’t reach the heights of Flaubert’s best work; he doesn’t reconcile his trenchant view of the characters with a rendering of their more sympathetic aspects. But he dramatizes this classic story admirably well, and the narrative craftsmanship on display is all but unsurpassed. While Flaubert is acutely mindful of the cultural and political background of the events, his handling of the two central characters is perhaps of the most interest, and that is what I primarily focus on below.

The story begins on the morning of the birthday celebration of Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee. He is an unpopular king. In the view of the local religious leaders, he has embraced the Romans too eagerly; his adoption of their official displays of the emperor is felt to cross the line into the sin of idolatry. Others look on his marriage to Herodias, who divorced his brother to marry him, as an act of incest and deserving of the utmost contempt. The most vocal of those denouncing his marriage is John the Baptist. Herodias wants John dead for his insolence, and to placate her Herod has him imprisoned. The local people suspect what has happened, which has lowered their opinion of Herod even further. And to top everything off, Herod is facing a possible military challenge from the Arabian king, and he is doubtful of being able to rely on assistance from the Roman officials and troops.

Flaubert’s opening paragraphs are extraordinary--as evocatively ironic a use of locale as one may encounter in fiction. Every detail speaks of how fortified Herod’s castle is. It is not depicted as a place that could be easily breached by a foe, and descriptions of the surrounding landscape suggest that foes would have considerable difficulty even getting close enough to try. They would first have to get through the surrounding sea, desert, and mountains. But Herod takes no comfort from this; he cannot even take comfort from the beauty of the Jordan River. His insecurities are always at the forefront of his mind. From atop his castle walls, he sees an encampment of Arabs at the southern end of the Dead Sea, and he suspects his days are numbered.

The story’s portrayal of Herod as a weak-willed, indecisive, and paranoid ruler is just about flawless. He’s unworthy of his position--pushed and pulled every which way by local religious leaders, the Roman authorities, and even his wife. He will not commit fully to any course of action, which is both frustrating and reassuring for others; his spinelessness is annoying, but he does not pose any threat, either. The only thing that gives him even momentary confidence is flattery.

The depiction of Herodias is just as accomplished. It is easy to see what has attracted her to Herod. She’s an ambitious, narcissistic woman who easily spots his vulnerability to manipulation. With him she can be the power behind the throne, and she is capable of anything. Her desire to bolster Herod for her own ends is so shameless that even he finds it embarrassing, such as when she brags of seducing a man to assist with their ambitions. But there is one line she cannot get Herod to cross, and that is to execute John the Baptist, whose vitriolic attacks on her and their marriage have cut her vanity to the core. Herod clearly believes that John is the prophet who precedes the arrival of the Messiah; he knows deep down that to execute John is sacrilege. It is also a move that could permanently undermine him with his subjects, since they also see John as that prophet. Herodias, though, is so dedicated to John’s death that her shamelessness goes further than it ever has before: she sacrifices her daughter’s innocence to achieve her murderous ends.

To a certain extent, Flaubert builds the story around what he identifies as the tragic flaws of Herod and Herodias. Her vanity and his weak-mindedness play off and compound each other, culminating in the horrifying event of John the Baptist’s decapitation. Actually, the tragic culmination of things comes later for this pair: John’s execution will forever condemn them in the eyes of Christian history.

Flaubert is an astute enough craftsman to know to leave this last point implicit for the reader; he doesn’t go out of his way to flatter the reader’s contempt for Herod and Herodias. The conduct of the two is appalling enough without overkill. He makes just one nod to the story’s greater significance; he ends things with a small ironic reminder of its relationship to the story of Christ. And almost miraculously, it’s a note that’s remarkably true to the spirit of Christian narrative: tragedy and horror pave the way to a greater hope. Things end terribly, but Flaubert has one looking optimistically on what lies ahead. He can’t find the sympathetic side to his characters here, but he finds the positive long-term impact of their actions. As an achievement, it is not as rich, but one admires the sophistication nonetheless. In closing, “Herodias” isn’t one of Flaubert’s strongest efforts, but one cannot help but be impressed.

Reviews of other works by Gustave Flaubert:

Monday, March 25, 2013

Short Take: Argo

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Argo, Ben Affleck’s third feature as a director, is an entertaining historical thriller. But it’s not especially ambitious or accomplished, and one may be fairly surprised that such a modest project won, among many other honors, the Academy Award for Best Picture of 2012. It’s based on the 1980 rescue operation of six U. S. embassy employees in Tehran who escaped capture during the Iranian hostage crisis. Affleck plays Tony Mendez, the CIA officer who conceived, coordinated, and executed the mission. The operation’s cover story, the film's most outlandish aspect, is true to what actually occurred. With help from Planet of the Apes make-up designer John Chambers (John Goodman), Mendez put together a fake science-fiction movie project that was ostensibly considering Iran for location shooting. The embassy employees would be gotten out of the country by passing them off as Canadian production personnel. Affleck’s directing and the script, credited to Chris Terrio, are at their best during the first half. The opening scene, which dramatizes the seizing of the embassy and the employees’ escape, is suspenseful and, for all its complications, presented with admirable clarity. The Hollywood sections are even better. Chambers and Mendez recruit a (fictional) producer, played by Alan Arkin, to help them put the fake movie together. The scenes that follow do a hilarious job of satirizing the film business. Arkin, the picture’s standout performer, is terrific as the uncouth, no-nonsense movie veteran. The second half isn’t as strong. The script relies on a number of hackneyed suspense scenes--all contrived for the film--to elevate tension during the rescue. The obviousness tests one’s patience, and the airport climax in particular is ludicrous. Affleck’s lack of assurance and occasional sloppiness as a filmmaker become increasingly distracting as well. The editing often appears to be covering up for poor staging, and the sound quality is erratic. Apart from Arkin, who sounds crystal-clear, it’s not unusual to have to strain to hear what the actors are saying. But for all the film’s flaws, it’s enjoyable if one's expectations aren't raised too high by the accolades it's received.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Short Take: The Master

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is an extraordinarily intelligent, compelling, and well-made film. It’s also frustrating; Anderson doesn’t build it to any kind of conspicuous epiphany or dramatic climax. Joaquin Phoenix plays a U. S. Navy veteran who can’t adjust to civilian life after World War II. Suffering from alcoholism and mental illness, he becomes a drifter until he meets the charismatic leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman) of a cult-like self-help movement. The leader sees something in the drifter that no one else does, and he takes the drifter in. The relationship between the two is complex and shifting. The drifter begins as a fervent devotee of the leader who has no real interest in the tenets of the movement. But when faced with expulsion, he embraces the movement’s ideas, and to a certain degree, eventually slips out from under the leader’s spell. One expects a climactic showdown between the two men, but it never really comes; they just fall away from each other. There’s a quiet tension in the scene in which the two have their final break, but it’s so understated the drama more or less floats off. But the push-pull, semi-father-son dynamic until then is gripping to watch, and Phoenix and Hoffman give spellbinding performances. Phoenix alternates between ferocity and pathos, and in his best moments, he evokes both at once. Hoffman never has one doubting what a narcissistic charlatan the leader is, but he also effortlessly conveys the assured, affable calm that gives the character his charisma. Amy Adams, who plays the leader’s wife, is the standout among the supporting cast; there’s a still, no-nonsense air about her that gives one the willies. Anderson’s directing is strikingly rigorous; there’s not a flabby moment to be found in the staging, camerawork, or editing. He also gets first-rate work from cinematographer Mihai Malăimare, Jr. and production designers David Crank and Jack Fisk. The carefully wrought color design makes the film absolutely gorgeous to look at. Jonny Greenwood’s musical score, with its rich use of discord, is outstanding as well. The film may not come to a satisfactory conclusion, but it is so effective and accomplished that one cannot be blamed for thinking that doesn’t much matter.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Short Take: "The Frost-Giant's Daughter," Robert E. Howard

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

"The Frost-Giant's Daughter," pulp author Robert E. Howard's second story featuring his sword-and-sorcery hero Conan the Barbarian, was unpublished during his lifetime. It was written in 1932, but Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright rejected it, and it didn't see print until the 1953 Howard collection The Coming of Conan. While "The Phoenix on the Sword," the first Conan story, presented the character in middle age, this outing features the younger version familiar to most readers. It opens with the finale of a battle between Conan and the warriors of a northern mountain tribe. After Conan defeats the last of them, a beautiful young woman appears. He is consumed with lust for her, and chases her across the snow-covered mountain pass. She turns out to be a femme fatale; her only goal was to lure him into battle with her frost-giant brothers, where he will hopefully be killed. Structurally, the story isn't much: it's just this happens, and this happens, and this happens. Howard concludes it with a final twist that revolves around whether the woman was real or a hallucination. But the question isn't well prepared for in the earlier sections of the story, so it just feels tacked on. It must be said Howard does a fine job of rendering the action of the story; the battle scenes, though brief, are vivid and brutal. He also keeps the reader keenly aware of the wintry environment and the impediments it creates for Conan throughout. Ultimately, though, the strengths of Howard's writing pale against the story's odious misogyny. A woman is presented as nothing more than a malevolent, taunting sex object. The main source of suspense is whether Conan will succeed in raping her. The story is effectively told from Conan's perspective, and there's no sense on his part or Howard's that rape is an evil, monstrous thing. The morality of Conan's actions are treated as beneath notice. It's an appalling story, and one ends up rather grateful that Howard didn't do a better job of putting it together. A more effectively crafted piece would have rubbed the reader's nose in the ugliness even more. The above illustration is by Frank Frazetta.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Short Take: The Professionals

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The 1966 Hollywood western The Professionals was extremely well received at the time of its release. It was favorably reviewed and a solid box-office success. Richard Brooks even received Academy Award nominations for his direction and screenplay, which is not something one would expect for a genre film. The only possibility for disappointment is that one may come to the picture expecting more than what it is. It doesn’t aspire to be anything more than an entertaining pulp adventure. A wealthy oilman (Ralph Bellamy) hires a group of desperadoes (Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Woody Strode, and Robert Ryan) to rescue his wife (Claudia Cardinale). She has been kidnapped for ransom by a Mexican revolutionary leader (Jack Palance). The script is elegantly crafted, and the plot twists in the third act are especially well handled. Brooks’ staging, editing, and pacing are just as accomplished. The two major action setpieces--the rescue of the wife from the revolutionary’s compound, and the final shootout with him and his men--are both intricately designed and remarkably lucid. Few directors in Hollywood would have been able to present these sequences without the scenes lapsing into hopeless confusion. Brooks also does a terrific job of integrating the action into the landscapes. He and cinematographer Conrad L. Hall (who also received an Academy Award nomination) have put together a very handsome-looking film. The actors were hired for what they do best, and they do it very well: Marvin is stoic and authoritative, Lancaster is devil-may-care, Cardinale is willful and gorgeous, etc., etc. The film doesn’t strike out in any unusual directions, but for what it is, it’s just about perfectly made. If one is looking for a solid adventure film to kill the time, one couldn’t do much better. The screenplay is based on the novel A Mule for the Marquesa, by Frank O’Rourke.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Short Take: Margin Call

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Writer-director J. C. Chandor’s 2011 debut feature, Margin Call, is a trim ensemble melodrama about an investment bank in crisis during the early days of the 2008 financial collapse. The film takes place over a 24-hour period. In the opening scenes, the bank’s chief risk analyst (Stanley Tucci) is laid off just as he uncovers a significant problem with the company’s mortgage-backed-security asset portfolio. His department protégé (Zachary Quinto) finishes the work later that night, and discovers that the bank is in immediate danger of insolvency. Word of the crisis quickly makes it up the chain-of-command, climaxing in a wee-hours meeting overseen by the bank’s CEO (Jeremy Irons). Plans are hatched to immediately divest the company of its toxic investments before buyers become wise to the assets' worthlessness. The various characters know they are engaging in a massive swindle, and they have to grapple with both the morality of their actions and the awareness that their professional reputations are going to be destroyed. The film is intelligent, absorbing, and well-paced, but it may seem pat and overly simplistic to viewers familiar with the ins and outs of the real-life banks’ actions during the 2008 crisis. (The fictional bank is not, as stated by some reviewers, based on Lehman Brothers, whose institutional problems were far more complex than what is depicted here.) Chandor assembled a dream cast for the production. Apart from Tucci, Quinto, and Irons, it includes Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Simon Baker, Demi Moore, and Mary McDonnell. Unfortunately, the characters don’t have particularly vivid personalities. Apart from Jeremy Irons, who delivers an amusingly hammy turn as the CEO, none of the actors makes much of an impression. The film accurately portrays the banally corrupt culture of the financial world of the early 21st century, but one wonders if that banality stood in the way of finding significant drama in the setting.

Short Take: "The Phoenix on the Sword," Robert E. Howard

This is a revised version of a review that was originally published at Pol Culture.

Conan the Barbarian, the most famous creation of pulp prose author Robert E. Howard, is the defining hero of the sword-and-sorcery adventure genre. He made his debut in the story “The Phoenix on the Sword,” first published in the December 1932 issue of Weird Tales (cover at left). In this first appearance, Conan is different than one expects. His days as a nomadic adventurer are behind him; he has conquered the kingdom of Aquilonia and now sits on its throne. The story is fairly straightforward adventure pulp. It concerns a scheme by a group of nobles and courtiers to assassinate Conan and usurp his crown. Things are complicated by intrigues among the conspirators, some supernatural elements are thrown into the mix, and the story climaxes with an expectedly bloody battle against Conan. Howard has a weakness for archly pompous sentence constructions, but overall his prose is clear, efficient, and fast-paced. However, his most compelling quality is not his talent for adventure plotting, nor his skill as a wordsmith. He shows a remarkable ability to tantalize the reader with hints about the narrative world in which the story takes place. There are several portentous references to Conan’s bygone adventures and ultimate destiny. Howard also teases with the ambitions of the sinister mystic Thoth-Amon, and the role of Earth as a stage for conflicts among supernatural forces. The reader is left satisfied by the adventure at hand, but what sticks in the memory are those unresolved, coyly discordant bits that point to an even greater story beyond. One cannot help but want to learn more about the characters, the setting, and that setting’s past and future. Hooking the reader is a major goal of any series-fiction author, and Howard achieves it.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Short Take: The House of Mirth (film)

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

In his 2000 film adaptation of Edith Wharton’s 1905 masterpiece The House of Mirth, writer-director Terence Davies downplays the novel-of-manners aspects of the material. The intrigues of Gilded Age high society are given just enough attention to keep the storyline clear, and Wharton’s incisive cultural critique feels muted as a result. Davies instead emphasizes and expands on the unrequited romance between protagonist Lily Bart (Gillian Anderson) and the attorney Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz). The story still packs a wallop; the dramatic core--Lily’s tragic downfall--is very much intact, and quite powerfully realized. A great deal of the credit for the film’s effectiveness belongs to Anderson’s exquisite performance. She has the beauty the role calls for, and she conveys Lily’s cultivated society poise effortlessly. In the early scenes, Lily’s resentment of the obligation to marry comes across with a minimum of fuss, and as the film progresses, Anderson takes the viewer right inside the tensions between the character’s grief, anger, and near-indomitable integrity. The only unconvincing element of the character is her passion for Selden. But that’s more due to the miscasting of Stoltz than anything else. He comes across much the same as he did in his early teenage roles, and his manner is far too callow for the part. (His juvenile-sounding voice undercuts him the most.) Anderson tries hard to make the romantic scenes work--Lily is literally panting with desire for Selden at times--but one doesn’t believe in her character’s attraction to him for a moment. But Stoltz aside, Davies shows an unerring instinct for casting. Dan Aykroyd is an inspired choice to play Gus Trenor, and Laura Linney is malevolent, conniving perfection as Bertha Dorset. The other supporting players--including Anthony LaPaglia, Elizabeth McGovern, Jodhi May, Terry Kinney, and Eleanor Bron--are uniformly excellent. The film is not an ideal adaptation of the novel, but it’s an extremely good one. Davies and his cast have brought the material to the screen with thought, craft, and care.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Short Take: The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The House of Mirth (1905) is Edith Wharton’s first major novel, and perhaps her finest. It richly deserves its status as one of the greatest works of American fiction. Wharton’s protagonist, Lily Bart, is like a Jane Austen< heroine reimagined in tragic terms. She is an unmarried, upper-class New York woman who is intelligent, strikingly beautiful, and immaculately well mannered, but she also has a sense of integrity that manifests itself as a subtly contrary willfulness. Everything about her is cultivated to make her the perfect wife in Gilded Age high society, but she ultimately cannot help but turn away the attentions of prospective husbands and sugar daddies. And for all her deftness in social encounters, she is also possessed of an ingenuousness that makes her an easy target for those who wish to discredit her out of envy, spite, or personal convenience. The novel chronicles her fall from high society’s embrace. But the tragic flaw that dooms Lily is not so much the character’s as society’s. What brings about her ruin are her social class’s petty mores and intrigues, none of which serve any admirable or productive end. Wharton has no illusions about Lily; she is described as “brought up to be ornamental” and “failing to serve any practical purpose.” However, the reader is also made fully aware that her ornamental quality is her only means of success in her world. All that appears important to the members of this societal elite is maintaining appearances for appearances’ sake. Wharton has a brilliantly incisive eye as a social critic, and she matches it with her rich sense of characterization and unsurpassed narrative craft. Her rendering of Lily’s downfall has a grave beauty, and she catches the reader up in the machinations of Lily’s world with the flair of a first-rate thriller writer. The nuanced precision of her sentences is nothing short of extraordinary. Few novels are more elegant, compelling, or powerful.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Short Take: Hiroshima mon amour

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

There’s considerable artistry on display in Hiroshima mon amour (1959), the début feature of Alain Resnais, who directed from a script by novelist Marguerite Duras. Unfortunately, that artistry seems more intended to elicit the audience’s admiration than to serve the story--the film is mannered, overwrought, and exceedingly pretentious. But for all its flaws, it does have some extraordinary moments. A French actress (Emmanuelle Riva) has come to Hiroshima to work on a film. A few nights before she is scheduled to return to Paris, she meets and hooks up with a Japanese architect (Eiji Okada). She is torn over whether or not to leave him. Their conversations veer across two topics. The first has to do with Hiroshima’s destruction during World War II. The other is the woman’s tearful recounting of her teenage affair with a young German soldier in Nevers during the Occupation. The film is at its best in its handling of the Nevers flashbacks. They’re not linear, and the gradual filling of the chronological gaps, combined with Riva’s forceful, expressive performance, powerfully suggest both the pain of those memories and the woman’s coming to terms with them. But in general the considerable virtuosity of Resnais’ staging, shot design, and editing doesn’t seem to have any purpose in mind beyond that virtuosity. Marguerite Duras’ stylized dialogue suffers from similar flaws: it calls attention to itself without having much of anywhere to go. One also wishes those were the film’s greatest weaknesses. Conceptually, the film couldn’t be more overblown; it strives to draw allegorical connections between the woman’s experiences in Nevers, the horror of Hiroshima’s destruction, and the fickleness of love and memory. Watching it, one may find oneself repeatedly thinking, Oh, come off it. But for all the intellectual hooey, its best elements--the presentation of the Nevers material, Emmanuelle Riva’s accomplished performance, the superb score by Georges Delerue and Giovanni Fusco--are things one cannot help but applaud. The black-and-white cinematography, by Sacha Vierny and Michio Takahashi, is excellent.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Short Take: Holy Terror, Frank Miller

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Frank Miller’s 2011 graphic novel Holy Terror was originally planned as a Batman vs. Al-Qaeda story. It’s not hard to see why DC Comics sought to distance themselves and their most popular franchise from the project. The story glories in its hatemongering bigotry against Islamic people. It’s utterly repugnant. In the published edition, Batman has been replaced with an obvious stand-in figure called The Fixer. One night, following a chase-fight-and-sex series of hijinks with a character clearly intended as Catwoman, The Fixer is caught on the periphery of a series of terrorist bombings in Gotham--ahem--Empire City. After the attack, The Fixer says “Let’s get us some killing done,” and he and the Catwoman character go on the attack against action-adventure costumed-character imaginings of Al-Qaeda operatives. There’s plenty of killing, as well as a sequence where The Fixer happily tortures a terrorist by breaking his back. The story--its hatefulness aside--is awesomely stupid, and it never escapes from superhero-adventure clichés. The climax has The Fixer defeat the terrorist cell after breaking into their lavish, super-duper, top-secret headquarters underneath the city. Miller’s art is the only point of interest; it combines the splashy, José Munoz-derived style of his Sin City stories with the architecture-fixated imagery of Elektra Lives Again. The kinetic quality of his better superhero comics is present as well. There’s also an odd rendering effect. Miller gratuitously covers the otherwise finished art with strokes, smears, and drips of white paint. The pages look as if they've been spattered with bird droppings. But the more one thinks about it, the more appropriate the technique and effect seem. Shouldn’t excrement look like it’s been rendered with excrement?

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Short Take: Life of Pi, Yann Martel

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

It’s often said that an inspired writer can make a great story out of anything, and few come more inspired than Yann Martel when he wrote the novel Life of Pi. Martel has an extraordinary gift for creating humor, drama, and epiphany out of every moment he depicts. Reading the book, one feels as if one is discovering life along with protagonist Piscine “Pi” Patel. The novel begins with him at about age 40 and living in Canada. But it quickly shifts to his childhood in India, where his family owned a local zoo. The reader first follows him through his discoveries of the ways of the zoo’s animals. One then shifts into his adolescent adventures with religion and his explorations of the Hindu, Christian, and Islamic faiths. It all sets the stage for the book’s major section, in which he and an adult Bengal tiger are the only survivors of a shipwrecked boat in the Pacific. They are trapped together on a large lifeboat, and Martel beautifully renders how they come to peacefully coexist in their months of close quarters at sea. This scenario might seem too limited to sustain for over 200 pages, but Martel brilliantly meets the challenge. He catches the reader up in the experience of survival--the protagonist’s forging of a mutually respectful relationship with the tiger, and his learning how to fend for food and water for both of them on the ocean. Martel keeps the reader in awe of the beauty and grandeur of nature throughout; one experiences it as both a terrifying other and an interdependent whole. The book is a thrilling journey for the reader. The story is so captivating that the weak final section, in which Martel raises the question of whether it’s the protagonist’s true account or a fantasy version of his experiences, passes by painlessly. The exhilaration of the existential sea adventure will stay with one long after one finishes the book. The novel was published in 2001, and deservedly won the 2002 Man Booker Prize.

Short Take: Quantum of Solace

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Quantum of Solace, the 22nd film in the James Bond franchise, and the second starring Daniel Craig, is perhaps the most lavishly produced film in the series. It is also one of the weakest. The film picks up where its predecessor, Casino Royale (2006) left off. Bond (Craig) is embittered over the betrayal and death of a loved one from the earlier film, and there doesn’t seem to be a humane impulse left in him. He uses his status as a secret-service field agent to give murderous vent to his anger and desire for revenge. His violent, cynical single-mindedness is challenged by his chance pairing with a Bolivian woman (Olga Kurylenko), who is seeking revenge for her family’s murder by a corrupt military officer. But unlike Bond, her personal vendetta has not led her to set aside her devotion to her country, and she is also looking to stop a European businessman (Mathieu Amalric), who is attempting to seize control of Bolivia in a banana-republic-meets-neoliberalism fashion. The picture includes some of the most flamboyantly conceived action sequences ever, but Marc Forster, who directed, has little feel for this kind of filmmaking. The key to effective action spectacle is clarity. Forster often lets things whiz by much too fast within the frames, and the hyperactive editing only frustrates the viewer further. The action sequences are often impossible to follow. Craig is still an effectively gritty presence, and one always enjoys the droll Judi Dench as the secret-service chief "M," but one is ready for the film to end long before it’s over. It’s exhausting. The screenplay is credited to Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Paul Haggis.