Friday, November 9, 2012
SKYFALL (2012): Eric's Review
So. Here we are.
The Daniel Craig era has possibly become the most interesting era of the Bond franchise now that the actor has had three films stashed under his shoulder holster. It's a bit of a renaissance in terms of reinvention and reinvigoration. CASINO ROYALE was a (another "re" word here) revelation in terms of how far you can go to change things up while still maintaining the core aspects that make Bond "Bond." Although some may disagree with me on that. And I get it. What "is" Bond or makes for "Bond" consists of different things to different people. For some it's the more fantastic, over the top moments. The villain's lair (usually impeccably designed by Ken Adams). The master criminal and the henchmen with the defining trait. The hot women with ridiculous names, the martinis, formal wear and crazy/cool gadgets. For others it's a single moment: Jill Masterson covered in gold, the Smith & Wesson line from DR. NO, the "no, Mister Bond, I expect you to die!" The hand to hand battle in the train cabin with Red Grant. The opening of the Union Jack in THE SPY WHO LOVED ME.
For some it's the actor. Craig, Connery, Lazenby, Moore, Dalton or Brosnan. Take your pick.
Some like their Bond to be down and dirty. "Gritty." More akin to Fleming than George Lucas ala MOONRAKER. Some want their Bond to veer on camp. Less Fleming and more Matt Helm. Some prefer the grounded, adventure/thriller approach like FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE or FOR YOUR EYES ONLY. Some want their GOLDFINGER, YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, and DIE ANOTHER DAY instead.
(well, okay, maybe not DIE ANOTHER DAY. But you get my gist)
The point is, Bond means many different things to many people and how we like our Bond is sometimes informed by what era we grew up in. Or which escapist aspect of that character resonates the most.
For most of the time, the EON family have been reluctant to mess with the formula beyond making one film a more grounded adventure and the next an escapist fantasy. They came close to the edge a few times, though. OHMSS with it's tragic ending, Dalton's introduction with LIVING DAYLIGHTS and the grim LICENSE TO KILL. But even with the best attempts, there was still that defined approach where, after Roger Moore's SPY WHO LOVED ME, the films pretty much ran on autopilot. As if each flick in the series was managed by second unit rather than one specific, visionary auteur (indeed, John Glenn who directed a number of these from Moore through Dalton was the second unit director on the series). And, look, I know I'm over simplifying my point but to me anyway most of the Bond films, with the exception of the 60s era, felt like they were directed by the same person. The Brosnan era tried to rectify that by first bringing in Campbell, then Spottiswoode, then Apted.... etc... but they still felt generic as they were also products of the 90s era Bruckheimer/Bay aesthetic. And in my view pretty interchangeable.
And then CASINO ROYALE happened. And by that token, Daniel Craig happened. And whether we wanted this or not, our view of the cinematic Bond might have been changed forever.
Not everyone likes Craig. And I respect why. Initially he did not fit our preconceived notions of what Bond should look like. But I found him and his interpretation to be a revelation. I've always liked the idea of shaking up the Bond formula. And when I thought they were going to go there with Pierce Brosnan's DIE ANOTHER DAY (you know what I'm talking about. His imprisonment at the beginning of the film. Six months of torture at the hands of the North Koreans) I thought we were going to get our first "broken" Bond and see how those consequences play out. But the potential of that idea was dropped immediately in favor of bringing back "Super Hero Bond and GQ Cover Boy."
SKYFALL, by the way, does a similar thing. But this time they really explore the conceit. And the potential is fulfilled.
SKYFALL is a weird movie though and I don't now how this will fit within the canon. The chances it takes are far greater than in CASINO ROYALE or the underwhelming QUANTUM OF SOLACE (but not "awful." I think it's underrated but not one of the best to be sure). Hell, the chances are greater than that tragic ending in OHMSS. But at the same time, of Daniel Craig's three 007 film run, this is the one that feels the most classic. What's even more weird is how this crazy, almost schizophrenic approach works whereas it didn't with any of the films of the Brosnan era (a time when the Bond Makers seemed to want to have their cake and eat it too). Although there are some jarring tonal shifts (I'll get to that in a minute) I am really surprised at how well they were able to reconcile the classic, escapist elements some of the Craig naysayers have been clamoring for with the grounded, grey world of the Daniel Craig universe. And a lot of credit must be due to it's director Sam Mendes, screenwriter John Logan's contributions, cinematographer Roger Deakins and the entire cast. Yes. Because for the first time we have a Bond movie that almost feels like an ensemble film. Every member has their chance to shine. Berenice Mahrloe, with even the limited screen time she has, absolutely communicates hotness, coolness and tragedy within just a few lines. This film also represents Judi Dench's greatest moment as M. She portrays M as a cold figure deeply aware of the burden that rests on her shoulders, having ruthlessly left many field agents to die in the name of Queen and Country. Naomi Harris has fun chemistry with Craig and represents intriguing possibilities for the series ahead.
(Yep. You read me right. And this is where I am getting dangerously close to spoiler territory so you may want to skip this parenthesis. But towards the end she has what I can best describe as her "Dark Knight Rises/Robin moment." But where it rang silly and awful in DKR, actually works in SKYFALL. Surprisingly.)
And then there is Ben Wishaw as Q. A smart choice in updating this character and I'd like to know what brand of crack NY Post film critic Kyle Smith was smoking while berating this idea. It stands to reason that a "modern" Q would err on the side of a Mark Zuckerberg type and not the doddering, lovable old uncle that was Desmond Llewelyn. And Wishaw is very good in the part. The back and forth between he and Craig is well written and their professional relationship well established. Less the younger agent teasing the old man and more of the older agent reminding the young techie upstart just where his place exists in this world but not without the grudging respect he deserves. And Ralph Fiennes will be a fascinating.... wait. Won't go there just yet. See the movie first.
Even Rory Kinnear as Bill Tanner, who was more or less a glorified assistant character to M in the previous Bond, makes more of an impression here (and hopefully they will continue to develop his character in the films to come. In the novels, Tanner is not only an important character but a good and respected friend to Bond). And finally Javier Bardem. Yes, he is as good as everyone says he is. Although there are moments that come dangerously close to camp, he's probably the most memorable, strongest villain in looooong time. My favorite moment in the film wasn't even an action scene. It's where Bardem first introduces himself to Craig. Where that conversation goes is not only subversive within the context of this being a James Bond movie, but it includes some of the best dialog I've heard in the series yet. As Silva, he has in his DNA the characters Scaramanga, Red Grant, Max Zorin and 006 from GOLDENEYE. However this is a wholly original character even though one could argue that his plot arc is lifted from 006's scheme, while 006's scheme (and ultimate reveal as "traitor") was lifted from the literary MOONRAKER.
(also keep in mind: no series is more guilty of repeating itself than the Bonds. I mean, there was a three consecutive movie stretch where every freakin' film was basically a remake of YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE or/and every villain wore the same, goddamned wardrobe: the Blofelds, Stromberg and Drax)
In fact, the entire plot points of SKYFALL echo both films and novels past. This is how the film pays tribute to Bond's 50th anniversary as a filmic character without resorting to (not too much anyway. With some exceptions but I will get to that in a minute) the annoying homage points that were way too present in DIE ANOTHER DAY. The pre-titles sequence is a nod to FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE with its setting in Istanbul and the fight on the train (which is also somewhat of a nod to OCTOPUSSY). A ridiculously entertaining confrontation in a floating casino that's reminiscent of the alligator scene in LIVE AND LET DIE (its the most "fantastic" moment in SKYFALL, by the way. And the closest you'll see Craig in an OTT Bond scenario ala the Moore era. But it really works here. Although there is some spotty CGI, Craig has some great "you have to be fucking kidding me" double takes that reminded me of Harrison Ford's Indiana Jones. While still conveying a sort of Connery cool and lookin' great in that tuxedo), a hiding-behind-reflective-glass sequence that harkens back to the fun house mirrors of MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN (a sequence of which concludes with one of the most spectacular collaborations of direction, fight choreography and cinematography in the entire series). But all work within the frame work and context of the plot and do not feel like rehashes but original moments in their own right. And if one could single out a literary inspiration, this film almost works as an adaptation of Fleming's novel The Man With The Golden Gun. Bond returns to service after being presumed dead. Must go through a reconditioning. Must go after a single, worthy adversary as dangerous and smart as Bond. Adversary has a... lover? Girl on the side?.. who fears said adversary and looks to Bond as her way out of that relationship. Through murder. And where said adversary is pretty much the yin to Bond's yang.
There is also a stronger emphasis on character and psychology more than ever before. Even more so than CASINO. Which makes the fusion of down-and-gritty-Bond with over-the-top-Bond even more strange. Strange because it somehow works. To give you an idea of what I mean (and what makes this possibly the WEIRDEST Bond in the film canon. As I said before): first act is a Daniel Craig Bond film reminiscent of CASINO, second act is a late Connery era Bond film reminiscent of THUNDERBALL or YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE and the third act... is like nothing you've seen in a Bond film before.
For one thing, the third act starts off and remains in England (which is actually a harken back to the novel MOONRAKER). And having spent my high school years there and having returned on rare occasion since, I found myself awfully homesick after seeing this. But that's not the point. What was fascinating to me is how SKYFALL completely subverts the grand finale of most Bond films (and there are a lot of subversions here: M as possible villain AND main Bond girl, younger Q and older Bond, main villain is mentally sick yet potentially sympathetic, main villain actually likes Bond, there is just the subtle hint that Bond might be sympathetic to villain, etc.). Where you'd usually get an explosive conclusion in the baddie's lair, spaceship or boat, in SKYFALL the finale happens on Bond's home turf with the battle coming to him. This is where, for the first time in the series, we are finally made privy to Bond's background. And while it may seem like a bad idea on paper... trust me. It works. And it's the coda to the Daniel Craig Bond emotional arc that started with CASINO ROYALE.
And things change in this movie. For good. New characters will reoccur while there are others you will never see again. But this is the amazing thing about this flick... After all the rebooting, reinventing, etc, that represents the Craig era, after all the chances and changes and weird combinations of tones and past and present Bond elements in SKYFALL... after all of this, the movie ends back to where it all started. No, not at the reboot that was CASINO ROYALE. I'm talking about the original Bonds. The 60s Bonds. Yes, this is the 21st century. But by the end of SKYFALL, Bond is back to where he truly began. In perfect combo of the retro and the new. Which now gets me to this...
I really like Craig as Bond. But Connery was always my fave. Not only did he "invent" the role but of all the actors who have played him, he had the most compelling presence. To me Craig was always the "best actor" to have played Bond. But for sentimental reasons I was always pro Connery.
But after SKYFALL, after three films to his credit, I am finding my preference erring ever close to Craig now. In SKYFALL Craig is now the Bond I saw in DR. NO, FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE and to a certain extent GOLDFINGER. He is now the only actor in my mind who has inherited the cool swagger and brutishness of Connery while bringing his own thing to the table. And he really looks good in the part now. Looks so goddamned cool in those Tom Ford suits, tuxedos, even in his less formal wear, you name it. Strikes a damn good pose. A really formidable presence. Yet on top of that he has made Bond an empathetic character. Something none of the actors have done before (Dalton had that potential which was never developed. And Lazenby lucked out on a really good script). This is really no mean feat. Especially from an actor who, when initially announced, elicited the biggest WTF?! reaction in the history of Bond.
Now that I've exhausted the platitudes I have to acknowledge that SKYFALL is not a perfect movie. A lot of critics have been calling it the "Best Bond Ever Made!" I don't agree with that. Although I think it might be up there with the best if not just for the well developed characters, direction and cinematography alone. In fact, I am not sure if this is as good as CASINO ROYALE. Because I have nitpicks.
Silva's "scheme" doesn't make logical sense. It is not clear if his plot involves killing M or simply making her miserable. You do get the sense (largely due to Bardem's performance) that he is seeking some sort of affirmation from her (as opposed to straight forward revenge). But how he goes about it seems awfully overly complicated and unnecessary. Then again, without that over complication we wouldn't have that tense chase throughout the London Underground. So maybe a little tinkering with the script could've justified that more. And I mentioned the homages and how for the most part they were subtle and organic to the plot? Well there is a moment with regard to Bond's Aston Martin that took me WAY out of the movie. Don't want to spoil it but it made no sense for it to be in a Daniel Craig Bond film (yeah.... this threw me more than the komodo dragon moment which was silly but not TOO silly. It was juuuuuust right). Although... again I really don't want to spoil it... they almost justify it towards the end. During a really tense standoff.
Also, I noticed that one of our Facebook fans had a problem with the aforementioned moment because at one point Wishaw's Q says "were you expecting an exploding pen? You should know we don't go for that kind of thing anymore." In response to our fan, I didn't think the presence of the aforementioned contradicted that quote from Q. This is a new Q. Whomever was the old Q most likely supplied him with the additions to the Aston Martin. Hence the new Q basically saying "nope. We're not going to do that anymore." But I do admit some continuity confusion here. Yes, I know, historically the Bond films displayed NO continuity but the Craig era seemed to promise this. And so I found myself questioning "wait, didn't he win that car in a poker match? So was that car tricked out when he won it? Or did he have someone from Special Branch trick it out for him?"
And as much as I liked the finale to the film, there was an emotional moment that felt out of place to me. Too reminiscent of the ending of another, recent Bond film that seemed kinda' inappropriate in this context. And it didn't really earn Bond's reaction to it. Go see the movie and then come back and I'll tell you what I mean.
But those awkward moments are truly redeemed by everything else. It's enough to overlook the flaws. Let me put it this way: SKYFALL lived up to the hype in ways that PROMETHEUS and DARK KNIGHT RISES did not for me. It is by far the better anticipated blockbuster of the year. But speaking of DKR, I want to address how all these comparisons are being made between SKYFALL and Nolan's Batman trilogy. While I concede lightly to those comparisons, SKYFALL really is a different beast. For the most part it is much better at combining the humor with the serious and being "weighty" without being overly ponderous. Although there are moments in Thomas Newman's score that are vaguely reminiscent of the Batman Trilogy soundtrack. However, Newman's score IS fantastic. So much better than David Arnold's of the previous Bonds and more in keeping with the late, great John Barry.
(Although I remain completely indifferent over Adele's theme song. I know other fans think differently about this but I am tired of the theme song that constantly wants to ape the whole big brass, Shirley Bassey thing. Because, lets face it most Bond songs really suck. Seriously. You cannot listen to most of these tunes objectively and say "these are good songs." The exceptions to the rule for me were the tunes that were not only great themes but great, fucking songs, period. Like Wings' "Live And Let Die." And "Goldfinger." And the title sequence? It's... okay. I kinda' wish they'd go back to the Saul Bass influenced design of CASINO ROYALE but really take it up a notch. But that's just me speaking as a sometime graphic designer.)
Finally, the best criticism I can give this film what with all the chances and changes made and the throw backs presented within... this is the Bond film that feels most like Ian Fleming to me. Even more so than some of the more faithful adaptions of films past. It captures that perfect balance of the bizarre with the down and dirty cloak n' dagger that was Fleming's hauter so to speak. And Craig makes the character his own. And Mendes presents what is definitely one of the best directed Bond films in the series. Now, depending on how you like your Bond, you just might have issues with this, anyway. And there is no way I can change your mind nor will I waste the energy to do so. But good Bond/bad Bond arguments aside, SKYFALL is just a good movie in its own right. Warts and all.