Saturday, 3 November 2012

Ten Things I Love About Skyfall

"The name is James. Mister James Bond" - 23 Films.

So goes the line that, without exception, has opened every single James Bond ever made and even those that haven't been made yet (such as GoldGoldGold, The Slengthening Of The Matriarch and 007 In New York). In this latest of years, it's come to mark a fiftieth anniversary for the besuited gent, but more importantly it can at last claim to open the best Bond, James film in nearly a pair of decades.

OK, that's enough of that. I needed to get that shit out my system and I concocted that headline quote fucking months ago, waiting for an excuse to use it in an appropriate and relevant situation. Serious-head on? Skyfall is badd ass. Yeah: badd with TWO ds. I have points and points to make and I've already wasted at least one paragraph so let's just get it started up in here. Ten reasons why Skyfall pulls double duty kickin' booty, full of spoilers and after the jump which, if you like, you may consider the blog-jump equivalent of the dam sequence at the start of Goldeneye.

1. James Bond has a proper struggle in it. Not like in Goldfinger where he had to figure out how to bang two sisters, or that time Grace Jones happened at him, no, in Skyfall he suffers a serious setback and plays at a disadvantage throughout the entire film. He's forced to get proper sneaky and be resourceful because that jerk Q wouldn't give him an exploding pen. He's not fit for duty and, more importantly, is at least partially aware of this, and is all around easier to root for because for once he's fallible. After the opening scene and that awesome adjusting-of-the-cuffs, he never has as cool a moment again. He's the same man, but he's more like us. Seeing him collapse after a little exercise? I. Am. THERE. Like, every day.

2. It challenges us to like M. The characterisation for Judi Dench in this movie is superb. Big movies, I mean really big movies these days, they tend not to have anything as rich as the conflict embodied by that little grey owl of a woman in this film. Bond goes from hating her to mourning her, but there's no doubt that the film doesn't swerve after basically saying 'she's kind of a dick'. There's no revelation that justifies her actions, she does questionable things and we have to deal. After all, it's essentially her fault the whole film happens. All on her. Yes, she has to make tough decisions, but for once in a Major Motion Picture, the weight of that is impossible to ignore and hangs over a lot of her scenes like a spooky sad regret ghost.

Raoul Silva - "Other"
3. We get to know Bond better through his family but not how you'd think. The film already succeeds at getting us in Bond's corner, not by presenting him as a libidinous superhuman but by humanising him physically and to an extent mentally. Casino Royale, and by extension Quantum Of Solace, managed this well by walking the Love And Loss road, but it's even more effective here where we're able to consider Bond one of us (which is bolstered by a heightened sense of nationality which I'll cover later, too), though not at the expense of making the movie less interesting. One of the quickest ways to ground a character in a relative plane of reality is to explore their family, and Skyfall does this in a curious manner, both presenting us with Bond's childhood home (the titular Skyfall in darkest Scotland) and the names of his parents, which in and of themselves are neato revelations without any real meaning, but then goes one further with the exploration of a surrogate family built around him by the end of the film, most explicitly presented as he cradles M's body as pseudo-patriarch Kincade stands aside and the brother in all but name lies dead at his feet. Bond, by the end of Skyfall, is cost two families. His is a lonely profession, a vocation in solitude. This is paramount. This movie is awesome. 

4. Something Bond films do, particularly if the series has been dormant for a while, is try to contemporise. This is often pretty cool, but in an inbuilt irony it invariably dates the films. Casino Royale incorporated freerunning into its opening sequence, Goldeneye made use of Russian computer hackers and electronic music, man, it goes allll the way back to the 70s. Skyfall doesn't bother. There are elements to it, yes, which date it to this time period, but they are organically occurring rather than inserted by an obvious hand. Bond's tech isn't of its time at the risk of looking stupid in another ten years, there's no coverage of any cultural trend that's exploded in the past while: it's all very universal. It's not analogous enough to fit in any timescale but it's the closest it's come so far to being timeless. I particularly admire the balance of reverence and insolence in the film's execution, too. We're led to expect certain things in Bond films but if handled poorly they just seem like awkward fan service, ticking boxes to get cheap smiles from the audience. Yes, there's a "Bond, James Bond", but for the most part tradition is addressed head-on in the later half of the movie, and promptly challenged. We have all our nostalgia crammed into an enjoyable sequence that uses both Monty Norman's 50-year old theme song (courtesy of Thomas Newman's jangliest guitar) and the classic Goldfinger Aston Martin, and it's a respectful moment because those cultural symbols deserve some measure of respect, but they are not the groundwork of a good movie and as soon as Mendes blows that Aston Martin up, it's like he's saying "1964 had us covered for nearly fifty years, but we have a new best Bond film now". The cojones, man. That was my biggest smile in the cinema. So long, past.

5. The opening double act of action and theme song is unforgettable. Regarding "Skyfall", I'll call back to that notion of contemporisation from earlier. Adele is a contemporary artist. She can't help it. She's alive, right now. It's not her fault. But as far back as "Tomorrow Never Dies", Bond Themes have been great big statements saying 'look, we can be cool, you kids like this stuff, right'? Chris Cornell?!! Come on, Eon! Adele's "Skyfall" is like a sonic glove. It is perfect for a film like this. Musically, it holds up really well, in the same way that "Diamonds Are Forever" and "Nobody Does It Better" hold up to listens independent of the imagery that accompanies them. I'm glad I avoided listening to it before I saw it, but I have no qualms about listening to it now the film's become a back-of-brain urge to see again. The title sequence itself is remarkable too, and cements the film as an exploration of Bond in trouble, underwhelmed and compromised by doubt. It also works on the purely groovy visual aesthetic too. Plus, FIGHT ON A TRAIN. Shit was tight.

6. These films are known for their action setpieces - what most of us quickly conjure from past films surely includes German tanks, jetpacks and fights on top of the Millennium Dome. Skyfall creates scenes and even shots that are iconic through photography alone. The entire sequence in Shanghai as Bond tracks Patrice in a glass room as projections from outside cast an ethereal ambiance over the pair is perhaps the most memorable few minutes in the whole movie. Another shot of Bond, upright on a wooden boat as it floats across water populated by Chinese lanterns and, from our perspective, right into the mouth of a decorative dragon is just brilliant. Bond is brutal, yes, but rarely this beautiful.

Rory Kinnear as Tanner - not mentioned outside this caption
7. The monsters of Skyfall are both figurative (M's questionable actions, Bond's engorged doubt) and literal (fucking henchman-eating Komodo Dragons) but it all comes down to Silva who, like many of Bond's best baddies (Rosa Klebb, Odd Job, Jaws, Trevelyan and many others) is a grotesque, that something... other. Sure, Le Chiffre had a bad eye and Whoever Was In Quantum Of Solace was a bit creepy if totally unmemorable, but in Javier Bardem's Silva we have our first Bond villain of the century worth remembering. From that head-to-toe white garb, accent and bit-of-face-that-comes-out, he's iconic enough visually to stand toe-to-toe with the very best of cinematic villainy, but we get so much of him as a character too and that's what takes it a step beyond. Not only do we understand his motivations but we can empathize with them. His actions, while extreme, are in a warped sense of things completely justifiable. At times during the film I was curious as to whether Bond would jump sides, because it seemed like it could happen, and to be honest, the fact that he didn't makes him seem less human than the man with the removable cheek. His drive, his goal, his manner: everything about Silva is perfect. Getting a bad guy this right makes you wonder how the lesser Bond films thought, for a second, ever, they could get away with it. The bar is set HIGH.

8. The Dream Team - Roger Deakins made it look like this:

...and Thomas Newman, my favourite living movie composer whose first name isn't John, made it sound like this:

These choices are kinda strange. Bond attracts big names on-screen, yes, but off-camera it's never really had anyone with as definitive a style as these two. The majority of Bond directors aren't that well known outside of the 007 films they made, and even John Barry is known as The Bond Guy when it comes to music. Using Deakins and Newman brings Bond out of its insular bubble and into the wider filmic world and makes me wonder why they never aimed higher when making these movies before. What I particularly like about the latter is how much at times it really sounds like Thomas Newman. He's got free reign. David Arnold put in passable scores for the last few Bond films but his work has absolutely no personality whatsoever. Even if you want to take a look at Eric Serra's work on Goldeneye, sure, it may have rubbed a lot of people up the wrong way (personally I love it, even if sounds exactly like his score for Leon) but at least you couldn't say someone else had made it. Arnold turns in work he thinks would work well on Bond: Newman turns in a fuckin' Newman score with bits that work well on Bond and a whole lot of other bits that are just like his name written in big dayglo grafiti all over the place. I love it. As for Deakins, well, you want your movie to look perfect, hire this cat. The last time (or only time?) these two worked together was on Wall-E in 2008, and that's one of the most aesthetically satisfying experience in the medium. If we could get these guys under the Sam Mendes umbrella for another Bond or two, we, as the human race, could put another inch in the win column.

Q - "Oik"
9. The notion of Scottish heritage might be a little nod to the series' roots with Mr. Connery (we're celebrating 50 years here, remember) but the whole emphasis on Bond as a citizen of the United Kingdom is so welcome that, as with Silva in the villain camp, it makes previous outings seem a little wide of the mark. James Bond is English, but when was the last time that mattered at all? In Skyfall, excursions to Macau and Shanghai seem like distractions from what's going on at home, because it is home. Attacks on MI6 and M herself should matter more to Bond than anything else, and that Silva launches a messy attack at a hearing in a stuffy building of bureaucracy, traverses the sewers and the Underground before heading north to the most gorgeously desolate Scotland ever filmed lets Skyfall really exist in England, really revel in it for a while. Character details too, with the new M seeming a lot less rogue than his motherly predecessor, Q being something of an oik if unquestionably invaluable and Moneypenny being, well, there at all really, all hammer home that this is Bond's home - he is surrounded by this native support network, and it is where he belongs when he's not off elsewhere topping empires and boffing ladies and oh yeahhhhh...

10. There. Is. No. Bond Girl. Thank God. It doesn't feel reactionist to me at all to eschew the typical role for women in the series in favour of being morally commendable. Yes, there's a girl in the film who needs rescued, but to be crude, she's not there simply for us to ogle before getting fucked and flung aside. The notion of having pretty ladies in these movies simply to bolster Bond's masculinity is shaping up, with Vesper's death in Casino Royale and his platonic cooperation with Camille in QoS, to be a thing of the past. There's no clear single instance of even semi-significant intercourse in the whole movie. I could hardly believe it. Along with the casting of Daniel Craig, who some complained was not handsome enough like that matters when telling a good story about good characters, they're allowing change to creep into this franchise and I am at my most excited for a new Bond film now than I've ever been.

What did you think of it? That it was excelmazing?

1 comment:

  1. I agree. Reading that has made me want to watch it all over again.