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observations on SKYFALL -- spoilers (1 Viewer)

Richard--W

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Some quick observations on the 23rd James Bond film after a late-night screening.
Good writing is important. I'm one of those Bond fans who is more interested in the story being told than in the action, but I want action, too. The newest James Bond film manages to tell story through action rather than prolong the action sequences unnecessarily or let them run off with the film. SKYFALL has an intelligent and well-structured script by John Logan, an esteemed playwright, a writer's writer, and a screenwriter with several hit films under his belt. I seriously doubt if the credited co-authors, Purvis and Wade, had much to do with the script, since they have proven themselves incapable of achieving this level of pared-down sophistication in their four previous Bond scripts. They are probably responsible for the third act, however, which I'll talk about in a minute. Logan's plot is character-driven and full of unexpected twists and turns. His biggest accomplishment is in changing the feminist mandate in the last 5 Bond films from male deconstruction and genre deconstruction to a reassessment of the female M. This is a film about M getting her comeuppance. The character arc belongs to her, and it's all grimly serious. Logan's second biggest accomplishment is in playing both ends against the middle -- giving the old fans what they want while obliterating it at the same time. Oh yes, and there's the co-star, James Bond getting to behave more like James Bond than he has in awhile. His dialogue is kept terse, which helps, and the phrasing is so characteristic of him one can almost hear Sean Connery speaking the words.
Except it's Daniel Craig, who misses the emotional mark as often as he nails the physical challenges. Craig is always interesting, but who is he playing exactly? The secret to Bond's success in the originating films is in his confidence, his humor and moral compass. He never doubts that he's in the right and if he is afraid of anything he doesn't let it stop him. The point in Bond being handsome, charming and suave is that handsome, charming and suave looks even more so when he is tested, bruised and battered. He can be damaged and even killed, and the tension, as well as the attraction, is in watching him outwit and overcome. This doesn't work with Daniel Craig. Craig looks bruised and battered at the outset, and he hurls himself into action like the Terminator. Craig plays on his negative feelings. He suffers, pouts and goes in for revenge. He's there to be hurt and to inflict hurt. That's all very compelling, but it isn't James Bond (not of the originating films or the novels). Connery would dodge when he saw a shark in the water; Craig gives the impression he would eat the shark blood raw with salt. This time out his Bond is morose and dejected. M doesn't belittle him this time; instead he acts small. There can be no lighhearted moments because his heart isn't light. There can be no nonchalance because his instinct is to plow the depths of moroseness. There can be no romantic moments because he is not a romantic. Watching Craig in SKYFALL, I get the impression he realizes his Bond isn't working, but has no idea how to fix it. If the director is trying to get him there, Craig either doesn't have the range to arrive or the will to try. And I think Craig truly resents the way Judi Dench took over the films. He let EON make a monkey out of him, and I think he realizes that now, too.
The pre-title finds Bond chasing a villain who has stolen a list of agents from an MI6 computer on the top of a speeding train (which is set in Turkey but looks more like Scotland). Bond is wounded first by the villain and then shot off the roof of the train by M's female sharpshooter who's aiming at the bad guy but hits Bond by mistake. In his earpiece Bond hears M instructing the sharpshooter to take the shot even at the risk of killing one of their own. He plays the rest of the film with his feelings hurt, still dedicated but looking weary and disillusioned. At the end, when the female sharpshooter says she's been reassigned to assist the new M, Bond says "Good. I feel much safer now." Craig speaks the line twice in the course of the film and both times he misses the ironic, sarcastic tone. Instead of humoring her, he says it with complete seriousness. Later, as the assault on Skyfall is about to begin, he looks about and says "I always hated this house." That line tells us just how little Craig and the creative team behind this film understand James Bond and his world. No wonder this is the first James Bond film not to mention the name Ian Fleming. After he's shot by friendly fire, there are some quick Jason Bourne-style shots of Bond floating in the water under the trestle, followed by some quick Jason Bourne-style shots of Bond recuperating on a beach half-way 'round the world until he catches sight of an explosion at MI6 on CNN. What follows is kept on the plausible side and is not overly burdened with male deconstruction and political correctness. The only sour note is in Judi Dench's M and the entire third act.
How did a diminutive old grandmother become the star and emotional anchor of the James Bond films? Dench strikes the keynote on which these Bond films are played. Once again she sets the tone, and once again it's an abrasive, condescending, shrill, depressing one. Unfortunately for SKYFALL, she is given more to do than ever before. M is the female lead. Hence, for the first time in a Bond movie, there is no romance among equals for James, no female adventurer to share in the adventure. Instead, M is called on the carpet by minister Ralph Fiennes, who gently and politely informs her that she will retire with honors after facilitating a transition into new management. Fiennes' calm reasonable tone is in deliberate contrast to Judi Dench's, and I loved every second of it. But why couldn't M's retirement -- or death -- be the pre-title sequence? Then we could get two hours of a relieved and empowered Bond working for the new M to clean up the mess she left behind.
Javier Bardem's loquacious Silva is the most believable and effective villain since Sanchez in LICENCE TO KILL (1989). Bardem plays a former spy who was betrayed and sacrificed to the enemy by M. He has suffered too much and is bent on revenge. Since he's a former agent, he knows how to humiliate M by infecting her computer and how to injure MI.6 by hitting them publicly. In an unexpected and inexplicable burst of honesty, the film has Silva referring to M as Mother, with lines like "mommy was very bad" and "oh, what has mommy done to you?!" In so doing, the subtext becomes the clear text, and if anyone ever doubted that the old grandmother ragging on James Bond and following him around the globe represented more than the letter M, here is the proof. My joke about the Bond films turning into a riff on the Stallone comedy "Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot!" is the literal truth. Whatever its flaws, I respect SKYFALL for this lapse into honesty.
One of my favorite actresses, Naomie Harris, plays a field agent who becomes the updated Moneypenny. Updated means she must first establish her chops as an assassin and spy before she takes to the desk. Once she shows that she can do anything a man can do, she reveals to Bond that her name is Eve Moneypenny. Harris is a refreshingly positive presence. How nice to have her in the regular cast.
The statuesque Eurasion beauty Bérénice Lim Marlohe plays Severine, the exotic femme fatale out of the old school of exotic femme fatales. Elegant but trashy. seductive but threatening, vulnerable but hard as nails, Marlohe is perfect. She has the gift of spontaneity and plays up the contradictions effortlessly. Watching her tremble in fear of Silva even as she coldy sets up a man to be killed for him is the film's greatest pleasure. Ian Fleming would have reveled in her casting. I love her interaction with Bond in that well-written scene at the bar. Especially the part where she leans forward and asks "Can you kill him?" Instead of lecturing Bond on his ego, she talks to him like a person who is both evil and in need of saving. Their love scene doesn't work, because it avoids showing two things -- their coupling, and Craig's face. He's a shadow behind the glass. Bérénice Lim Marlohe should remind Ian Fleming enthusiasts of the darkly conflicted women of the novels and to some extent of the originating films. She is also a reminder of all the dimensions that were missing from Vesper Lynd in the abortive CASINO ROYALE (2006). Likewise the dangerous exotica of these Shanghai scenes is a reminder of the atmosphere and style that was missing from CASINO ROYALE.
Behind the camera, Daniel Kleinman returns to provide another surrealist opening title sequence. His vision and imagery were sorely missed in the previous entry. Adele, a smokey-voiced belter and balladeer, performs the title song in the Shirley Bassey tradition. Her voice is very welcome after the last two cat-stranglers. Despite lukewarm lyrics she's quite the best vocalist the series has had since THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH (1999). Thomas Newman fails to distinguish himself as composer, but he doesn't do anything wrong, either. When the time comes to play the Bond theme, this is the first time the arrangement fails to generate much excitement, although it's nice to hear it again after a long absence over the main action.
Photographer Roger Deakins has figured out the medium of digital capture better than anyone. SKYFALL isn't shot on film, but it never looks dim and overly soft like all the other digitally captured movies I've seen. His Shanghai is a skyscraper city of neon lights, animated signs and glass reflections that's just stunning. A fight between Bond and an assassin (it's never clear who the assassin kills or why, nor what he's stealing from the safe) in front of a shattered glass wall, shot in silhouette against illumination from the apartment in a skyscraper across the way, is equally stunning. I've never seen a night-for-night exterior lit the way Deakins lights the night-time assault on James Bond's ancestral mansion. The house, Skyfall, sits in a pasture all by itself. Across the field there is a small house in the distance. Obviously he mounted arc lights at the top of tall poles or cranes but he does not flood the scene with a direct light. Instead he bounces the light off what must be tinted mirrors. The tint is a kind of rust-color that blends in with the night sky. The ground and building are flooded with a patina of diffused, even light that keeps the sky dark while allowing for a long depth of field and a sharp image free of noise. I'm pleasantly surprised at how good SKYFALL looks. There is a sense of film grain and I think an emulation of the aesthetics of Ted Moore, the dp of the originating Bond films (whose work remains vastly under-rated). No Bond film has looked this stylized since Claude Renoir shot TSWLM and MR.
I've said before that it was never necessary to deconstruct Bond in order to update him. Craig's defenders assert that Bond's screw-ups and the lectures he earns in CASINO ROYALE were the start of a new character arc. They think a grown-up in this late thirties can be taught cultured habits, spycraft and how to be a better man by being excoriated by his M.other and belittled by his gal-pals. They also assert that James Bond has finally "grown into the James Bond we all know and love" at the end of SKYFALL. These people can not be reasoned with, and it's best to simply ignore them. Unfortunately, the third act will reinforce their contentions.
"Where are you taking me?" M asks Bond. "To the past," he replies. Bond drives M to his family home in Scotland, the mansion house named Skyfall. His plan to trap and kill the army of assassins led by Silva who are coming for him and M in the house makes no sense and is as implausible as flying carpets and superhumans with steel teeth. The viewer's expectations sink when Bond starts rigging the house with booby traps and small explosives. When I see M filling light bulbs with oil and nails that will blow up when turned on I can't help thinking of all those westerns in which whiskey bottles are stuffed with a rag to be lit and used as fire grenades. This stand-off-the-Indians siege is so simplistic it could only have been thought of by the dumb & dumber of Bond writers, Purvis and Wade. Besides, it was done better at the end of a true British masterpiece, FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (1969). This third act is the weakest part of the film, if not the weakest in the entire series, and would be totally laughable if it weren't directed and photographed in dark noir style with such undeniable skill. There is a caveat for the feminists, however: predictably, despite his best efforts to save M, Bond is off fighting someone outside when Silva catches up with her inside. In other words, Bond fails to protect. When he comes in to kill Silva, it's too late. No doubt producer Barbara Broccoli delighted in depicting yet another failure in Bond heroism. So with M dying romantically in Bond's arms -- grit your teeth and try not to gag -- the poisonous arc of CASINO ROYALE finally comes to a stop.
We are shown Bond's family crest and the tombstones of his parents who died when Bond was very young, modifying the orphan tale concocted for CASINO ROYALE (2006). So he's an orphan raised by the grace of someone else's charity, but he's also the privileged son of an upper class aristocrat with a title? Then we are treated to the entire place blowing up in flames together with the Aston-Martin DB5, that most beloved symbol of classic James Bond films. The classic James Bond theme plays during all this destruction, but if the audience is meant to feel excited at the familiar action score, there is a reason why it falls flat. Bond has told us the destruction is okay because he couldn't stand these things anyhow, but is it okay with the audience? Watching the Aston-Martin DB5 from GOLDFINGER (1964) being shot to pieces and blown to bits is no reason to celebrate, and putting the classic Bond theme over it feels incongruous, if not grotesque.
If the third act had been different -- if the siege had taken place in the wreckage of MI.6 or at M's apartment -- SKYFALL would be a stronger film, and a better anti-Bond film. It would also add up to the best of three anti-Bond films that Craig has starred in. That's if the third act had taken place in a different setting and utilized a self-defense that weren't so inappropriate and pathetic.
The ending sees Bond and Moneypenny entering her office with the familiar coat rack, file cabinet and small desk in place. He is ushered through the padded double-doors into the new M's office where Ralph Fiennes, a refreshingly down-to-earth M hands Bond his next assignment. So after doing it's part to utterly destroy the James Bond concept and cinematic mythos, SKYFALL takes us back to the beginning. The film ends with Craig walking the walk in the classic gun-barrel sequence to a guitar-heavy James Bond theme.
SKYFALL is impressive dramatically and as an action film. Sam Mendes directs with unerring judgement and impeccable style. His set-ups and blocking are straight out of Directing 101, and boy does it work. I particularly liked Silva's entrance, a monologue timed to match his long walk from deep in the frame up to the foreground. I would enjoy the film more if a different actor equipped with the right emotional tools had played James Bond, and if I didn't have to look at Judi Dench for 2 1/2 hours. Don't expect to leave the theater feeling elated, but you will see an artful and well-crafted spy film with exciting action scenes. That having been said, I hope that Sam Mendes, Roger Deakins and John Logan collaborate on the next two films (to which only Logan -- and unfortunately Craig -- are contractually committed) because they are the best creative team assembled since OHMSS in 1969. The talent is there; what they do with it is something else again. Bond 24 is due out in 2014. Hopefully EON will enable Mendes, Deakins and Logan to make a right & proper 007 film. They stand a good chance of pulling it off their second time, now that the franchise is free of the legacy of CASINO ROYALE and the burden of that dreadful, abrasive, offensive woman.
 

Richard--W

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director Sam Mendes has many interesting things to say in this interview:
 

TonyD

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Sorry, i wish there was a delete button for posts you want to delete.
 

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