Friday, 30 November 2012

Skyfall REVIEW- Third Time's A Charm, Mr Craig.


So, if you don't want to read any spoilers, just have a look at this picture for a few seconds and then get on with your day;
Right, now that that's out of the way...

I've seen "Skyfall" twice now. Usually, the first viewing is solely for the entertainment value (or lack thereof) and I normally require a couple of screenings before I begin picking a film apart to look for themes and breaking down its structure.

With "Skyfall", I found myself wanting to pay close attention. It's been four years since the last Bond movie, "Quantum of Solace" and that was a rather disappointing effort. Certainly, the opening car chase was very well done, as was the fight in Siena,  and the use of the air, water, Earth and fire elements was clever, but overall, the film was lacking, especially after the exceptional "Casino Royale" two years earlier.
And so, I had rather high hopes for Bond's next adventure. And then, of course, there's the Third Film Rule. It has often been said that the third Bond film, "Goldfinger" (1964) was where Sean Connery really hit his stride in the role. The same was said of Roger Moore when he did "The Spy Who Loved Me" in 1977. Even Pierce Brosnan seemed more comfortable in the part by the time he did his third film, "The World Is Not Enough" in 1999, although it was a little hard to tell, given the poor script. Admittedly, to some extent, the Brosnan Bonds still had some residue left behind by the Roger Moore-era films with their reliance on bad puns and outlandish gadgets that sometimes made Bond look silly.
Daniel Craig gave us a Bond for the New Milennium in "Casino Royale". A Bond who was slightly too self-assured and hot-tempered, a Bond who needed to be brought down a peg or two with a piece of knotted rope. There was an uproar amongst some fans when he was cast in the role. By the time the film premiered in late 2006, everybody shut their traps. And now, with "Skyfall", Bond's dinner jacket fits him like a glove. He has brought some depth to the character of James Bond that was only hinted at when the vastly under-rated Timothy Dalton played the role in "The Living Daylights" (1987) and "Licence To Kill" (1989).
About a year ago, it was announced that another Bond movie would soon be in the pipeline and by January of this year, filming on Bond 23 had commenced.
I was happy with the choice of Marc Forster as director of "Quantum of Solace", even though he delivered a somewhat lack-lustre effort. At least it showed that EON Productions (who make the Bond films) were looking to bring a little more realism and gravitas to the franchise by using a director who was adept at character development. If an action film director, such as, say, Renny Harlin or (God forbid) Michael Bay had been given the reigns, we Bond fans would have been in trouble. There's more to a Bond film than just blowing up expensive cars.
With the announcement that Sam Mendes would be directing this one, I knew it would be a great Bond. A very sure-footed job. You could tell that he allowed the actors time to find the characters. Yes, it is just a Bond film, but there were a few extra layers in the characterisations that you don't normally expect in a Bond film.
Regarding the screenplay (written by Neil Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan) , it's almost hard to believe that it was written by the same dudes who gave Bond an invisible Aston Martin ten years ago. I've got two theories-either Purvis and Wade were given a little more freedom with the script OR all the good bits in this story were provided by John Logan, the other writer on this film. I'm not sure, but in Purvis' and Wade's defence, I should mention that they did write a very well-received telemovie called "Let Him Have It" before they began writing Bond movies, so I have to give them credit. Anybody writing a Bond script (or novel) has very stringent guidelines to follow, so perhaps they were given a little more rope to write the Bond film that they've always wanted to write.
The story is just a good, old-fashioned revenge tale, but with a twist. It's not Bond out for revenge. It's the bad guy.

The plot itself is usually where I need to see the film a few times. It made enough sense. Sure there were some holes in it, but it's an action thriller. But what I loved were the notions of duty, patriotism, and the need for something like the Double-O Section in the modern world.
And the cinematography by Roger Deakins was astounding. The shots of Bond's DB5 driving through the Highlands looked like moving oil paintings. No MTV editing in this film, which was a good thing. This film was allowed to breathe. The lighting throughout was exquisite. There is a fight scene in Shanghai which is filmed in silhouette, punctuated by gunshots and Thomas Newman's low-key score. The music in this scene is great. If your heart-rate had a soundtrack, this would be it.
I don't know why the font is smaller in this section, but I suppose that's probably a good thing. Change your zoom level if you want to read it. My apologies. Must be a cut&paste thing.
The film begins with a chase sequence where Bond arrives at a safe-house in Istanbul only to find three operatives dead and the hard drive of a laptop computer missing. I have to say I do like being dropped right into the middle of the action. This was used to great effect at the beginning of “Quantum of Solace” where the camera skimmed across the surface of Lake Garda in Italy to zoom in on a tunnel of the lakeside road, with rapidly interspersed shots of the bonnet of Bond’s Aston Martin DBS and Daniel Craig’s eyes as he drives, all the while accompanied by a foreboding violin score that gets sharply interrupted by the roar of the Aston Martin and then a hail of machine-gun fire as a close-up of Bond's hand slams the gear-stick into fifth.
“Skyfall” has a quieter opening sequence to begin with, but it soon escalates into a shoot-out at a market-place, a motorbike chase along tiled rooftops, and a fight aboard the roof of a moving train before Bond is accidentally shot by his fellow MI6 operative, Eve.
As with “Casino Royale”, the credits sequence in this film helps to move the narrative along slightly. Bond has been wounded and falls from the train while it’s over a bridge and he lands in a fast-flowing river. Much has already been discussed as to how anyone could survive a fall from such a great height. May I remind those people that this is a MOVIE.  And, a James Bond movie at that.  The heightened reality that exists in film, in general, is a few rungs further up the ladder in a Bond film.
So the next question was how did he not drown? During the credits, as Adele sings the title song, we see Bond drifting to the bottom of the river before a female hand grabs his wrist. The next time we see Bond after the credits, he’s sitting in bed with a Heineken longneck with an unnamed woman lying next to him. I figure she’s the one who fished him out of the water. That’s my interpretation.
There are mirror motifs in these credits and the first act of this film is as much about Bond being a fragile reflection of his former self as he attempts to regain his skills and M’s trust. And this is what much of the Daniel Craig Bond films have been about. There’s been a constant thread of M lacking trust in Bond, or rather, she doesn’t trust that Bond will stay on-task without letting his anger or pride get in the way. This faith that she may or may not have in him is tested on more than one occasion in this film.
It’s not my intention to give away the entire plot of this film in this review. Basically, Bond began the movie attempting to retrieve the hard drive of the computer which contained the names of various MI6 agents embedded throughout terrorist cells around the world. We later learn that M was responsible for the loss of the hard drive to begin with and her leadership of MI6 is called into question. Meanwhile, an ex-MI6 agent is hell-bent on revenge against M for a perceived betrayal.
The Bond Villain
Aside from the actor who portrays 007, each film is only as good as the Bond Villain. Javier Bardem plays an ex-MI6 agent named Raoul Silva and I don’t know how much of his characterisation was in the script (not as much as he brought to the role, I suspect), but his portrayal is filled with little nuances and affectations that put him quite a few cuts above all Bond villains of the past fifteen years. The much-talked about scene where Bond is hand-cuffed to a chair and Silva undoes a couple of buttons of his shirt and strokes his chest has led to much speculation on Bond forums over whether the character is gay, straight or bi. Who cares? It did strike me as though Silva was doing this to unnerve Bond and you could see Bond’s veneer crack a little during this moment. As I said up above, Daniel Craig has hit his stride as 007 in "Skyfall" and it’s to his credit that he gives Bond moments of doubt here and there throughout this film.
The Bond Girl
Berenice Lim Marlohe plays Severine in this film. She is not in the film for very long, but I have to say she made an impression on me. Marlohe's performance was divine. The scene with Bond at the bar in Macau where she looks like she's about to burst into tears any second over the hopelessness of her situation, and then she gives Bond a tortured and brittle smile. It was a complex performance. Even her hand tremors slightly as she holds a cigarette and you can feel that she's painted herself into a tight corner and sees Bond as a means of escaping her situation. I hope Marlohe has a long and distinguished acting career and doesn't disappear into obscurity like so many other Bond Girls have in the past.
But then, the real Bond Girl in this film was M. More about that later.
The Humour
The humour was well-placed and not over-the-top or corny. No steel-toothed henchmen wrenching the steering wheels off speedboats before going over waterfalls, no sleazy gags about Christmas coming twice a year or 'attempting re-entry, sir'. Just some sarcastic lines here and there.
When we first see Bond's classic Aston Martin DB5 in his storage garage, the audience at my second viewing let out a collective "Aahh", followed by polite laughter. The same reaction that a favourite uncle would get when turning up after being absent for many years. Bond fans in the audience may have recognised a variation on two short notes from the "Goldfinger" score in that scene.
And in the final battle, the look on DC's face when the Aston Martin gets shot to pieces is priceless. Bond is a creature of vanity and he likes his expensive accoutrements, so this is particularly upsetting for him. Don't mess with Bond's car. 
There was also one quick bit where Bond jumps up off the back of a komodo dragon, which I thought was a little silly. If you know me by now, then you'll know that I take my Bonds seriously. However, my wife reminded me of a similar scene in "Live And Let Die" (1973), so it all made sense to me after that.
There were three things that really stood out for me in this film.
1- This film is a love letter to Bond fans. It's the kind of Bond film that "Die Another Day" should have been. "DAD" was the 20th Bond film (officially) and while they threw in a few references to past Bond films, they missed their opportunity to celebrate this fact. With "Skyfall", EON Productions have made up for their previous miss-step.
2- This film is a love letter to England, or rather, 'Englishness' and the values (that I imagine) Britain holds dear and how the country sees itself. It does give England more of an old-fashioned, Churchillian identity which I thought was a master-stroke, from the Turner reference in the museum to the porcelain British bulldog on M's desk. For, no matter what else he may be, Bond is a patriot. I had read that this film had a much smaller budget than previous Bond films, which is one main reason why most of it takes place in Britain. I thought it was perfect to have it set in one location. Spy back and think of England.
3- If Ian Fleming were a modern author writing Bond novels today, they would look something like this, once translated to the silver screen. Like I said above, "Skyfall" is a love letter to Bond fans, but I think it has a little more resonance with Bond fans who've read the Fleming books. I liked the fact that there were no real gadgets and it was Bond relying on his brute strength, his wits, and his patriotism.
Perhaps the strongest image I take away from this film occurs during an Enquiry into M's running of the Secret Service. The panel questions whether there is a need for something as antiquated as the Double-O Section in this modern world. Silva and his henchmen are on their way to kill M. Bond has just figured out Silva's end-game. And he starts running.
And if there was one image from the film that represents how I've always viewed Bond, it was the shot of him running down the street to save M. And it was just Bond. No stealing somebody's motorcycle, or jumping onto a truck to get there faster. Just a man in a suit relying on his own steam to do whatever is necessary to get the job done. During her defence, M recites part of Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem "Ulysses" and this is overlayed onto the soundtrack of this this scene, further strengthening the notion of a man out of his time being the right man for the job.
That scene alone shortened the bridge between literary Bond and cinematic Bond and was worth the price of admission. For me, anyway.
The theme of betrayal cuts right through this film. Both Bond and Silva feel betrayed by M for different reasons. Silva referes to M as "Mommy" on a number of occasions and one gets the sense of two brothers, one vying for a mother's approval and the other wanting to prove his worth again. Whereas Silva is blinded by rage and revenge against M for what she has done, Bond understands that she did what she did because she could see the bigger picture and operatives are indeed expendable. Again, the Britishness rises to the surface. I doubt it's a coincidence that the non-Englishman in this story fails to understand M's motivations. And, as I stated earlier, it is M who is the Bond Girl in this story. Judi Dench's portrayal of Bond's superior has done much to elevate the quality of these films since she first played the role in "Goldeneye" back in 1995. And I think it's great that the first person to utter the 'f' word in a Bond film is her.
The theme of old-school methods also runs through this film. Bond is seen earlier in the film shaving with a cut-throat razor, and Eve mentions to him; "Sometimes, the old ways are the best." When Bond meets Q, he is given nothing but a signature-gun, in the form of his Walther PPK, and a homing device. The notion of doing things the old-fashioned way further help to explain the necessity of the Double-O Section in the politically correct 21st Century. I've stayed away from Bond forums for over a year and avoided all spoilers about this film prior to seeing it and I was happy to see that I had incorporated a similar idea of 'old-school' in my last fan fiction.
The film is not without its faults. I'm a Bond fan, but I'm not a fan-boy. But its faults are minor. Plot holes here and there, a soundtrack that, while very, very good, doesn't utilise the Bond Theme to a huge extent. It's certainly there, just not used for any great length of time.                                       
The signature-gun was a little old-hat, in my opinion, and has been used enough times in other films since the 1960s, when the spy movie craze was at its highest. You just know that the gun will fall into the hands of someone who will point it at 007 won't fire.                                                                           
Some other storytelling cliches, but again, nothing major. In fact, I have seen similar stuff in films that purported to touch on grander themes and notions on the human condition.
And, the gun-barrel sequence was tacked on at the end. I hate that. All my life, I could be guaranteed that my pulse would rise sharply whenever those white dots danced across the screen. Every time I saw them, I knew exactly where I was.
"Skyfall" isn't Shakespeare. Don't expect the answers to the meaning of life. It's  just a James Bond movie.
But what a James Bond movie!                                                                                                  
It was a Bond movie for the fans. It was a Bond movie for England.  And it did what it set out to do.
Just like James Bond.
Thanks for reading.

EDIT- additional text added 1/12/12


  1. Wow, that was a marvelous review. Compared to your thoroughness, the quip I offered on my blog was, well, barely a quip at that. Although I have a different opinion about M, the rest of your review was pretty much spot on (and, again, my opinion about M is just that - a subjective opinion, so I'm sure others will enjoy her film performance). The best thing about this review is that any reader can tell it was written by a true fan. Bravo!

  2. Thanks, BB. I wrote it with a view that, although I'm a fan, I'd be the first to call foul if the film wasn't true to what Bond is meant to be. Blind fandom is where you love something even if it's bad or doesn't hold true.
    I liked what you had to say on your blog. This modern Bond is very far removed from the Connery-era one, but there are some important links to the early films and the Fleming novels.

  3. I enjoyed it too, and your review nails it. I liked Eve quite a lot, the actress is very personable and the camera likes her.
    great post, as always.

  4. You know, NA, my daughter's name is Eve, and ever since she was born, I've been wanting to add 'Moneypenny' as her middle name. Well, that plan's shot to hell, now. Or is it?
    Naomie Harris, who played the role, was indeed very personable, but I'm still coming to terms with Moneypenny being a field agent. Lois Maxwell, the original Miss M, cast a very long shadow.

  5. I do like the idea of her HAVING BEEN a field agent though. It would give weight to her empathy and concern. And I always loved Lois Maxwell, for sure. I'm also in the "Judi Dench was a surprising success as M" camp I thought that worked very well, she fit the personality.

    1. Well, when you put it that way, it does tend to be more plausible. As for Judi Dench, her casting, back in 1995, was a stroke of genius. Even more so when you consider that her version of M was loosely based on Stella Rimington, the former Head of MI5.

  6. I watched Skyfall yesterday, so now I was able to read your review without getting the plot spoiled. You've done a fine job here.

    I enjoyed the movie a lot -- some things were understated and underplayed in a very effective way, there was nostalgia without sentimentality, there were all the Bond trademarks but they were introduced in clever ways (he doesn't say "shaken, not stirred" -- he just watches the bargirl shake his drink and says, "perfect"). The revelation of the meaning of "Skyfall" was great, and the climactic battle was done very well, especially the role of the car.