Skip to main content

I did call you an exemplar of British fortitude.

Skyfall
(2012)

(SPOILERS) My thoughts on Skyfall haven’t changed a whole lot since first viewing. It looks better than any other Bond movie, courtesy of Roger Deakins’ cinematography, and Sam Mendes assembles a strong cast, but rather than an all-out Bond 50th celebration this is The Bond and M Show, a consequence of Dame Judi Dench’s over-glorified 17-year stint as 007’s boss. It also fundamentally lacks the precise storytelling – both in terms of screenplay and Martin Campbell’s direction – that makes Casino Royale the exemplar of what a modern Bond can do if really tries. 


The only thing they tried here is leading the plot by the nose, back engineering it to give M a send-off. The villain Silva (Javier Bardem) has all of two good scenes (one on his Inception island and one in his Silence of the Lambs cell), just enough time to establish that the series, with its new propensity for backstory, has perversely become the tale of an orphan looking for surrogate parents; into which comes Silva the wayward sibling (and from which springs more filial obsessing with Blofeld in Spectre). It doesn’t necessarily take a lot for a villain to make an impact – Donald Pleasance hardly shows up in You Only Live Twice, although that one’s a bit shit anyway – but Silva’s entrance into the annals of Bond villainy is rather undercut by his obsessing over “Mommy”. Instead of making the threat personal, (again see Spectre for wearing such things into the ground) it makes it studiously unremarkable.


Silva’s elaborate plan is also pretty daft. Although that’s nothing new for a Bond movie, the Craig era had sought to pride itself hitherto on sticking a bit more closely to the feasible, or at least vaguely real world. Silva would have got his claws into M much more effectively if he hadn’t had himself caught, instead just turning up on her doorstep (and all that business with the effects spectacular subway train crash?)


But Bardem’s mannered performance is effective in a way Waltz’s in Spectre isn’t. He carries natural menace on his shoulders (see No Country for Old Men) and, while I don’t think all that much of his rat story, the account of the effects of hydrogen cyanide – complete with visual evidence -  is a better twist on the disfigured villain than any amount of stolid exposition regarding the flawed establishment; the system makes the villains, and you can see how right there.  It also explains why Brosnan’s Bond threw his capsule away years ago.


Of course, Silva’s unparalleled skills as a cyber terrorist lead one to wonder why he took so long to launch his plan (months by the look of it, since Bond got to play dead for a decent spell). And his character – the opposite of Bond – has already been covered with class (Christopher Lee) and unmemorably (Sean Bean), and even as a side order of heavy (Robert Carlyle). Added to which, there are familiar elements of hoodwinking the good guys and blowing up MI6 HQ (The World is Not Enough, curiously plundered throughout the Craig era). The result? A character and plot that are really about the window dressing rather than offering anything truly striking within.


Silva’s not-quite advances on Bond (“What makes you think this is my first time?”) also feel contrived, laid on purely for the column inches the old misogynist dinosaur resorting to a bit of bisexuality will drum up. And he’s not really, is he, while Bardem’s almost mincing performance could equally be accused of falling into the camp (ahem) of stereotypical villainous homosexual degenerates of yesteryear; not really progress at all, then.


Talking of which, it’s slightly alarming, even by the series’ standards, that Mendes lets Bond have his way with Severine (Bérénice Marlohe) in the form of a (particularly arty, particularly steamy) traditional Bond shag, just after he has gone to all the trouble of analysing her abused upbringing and sale into sex slavery. Way to go, James, you scored there! (And then Severine is killed because Bond can’t shoot straight – with a gun that is –and he’s making quips a minute later.)


The déjà vu invading Bond’s plotline of being over the hill and betrayed also derives from the Brosnan era (his injury in The World is Not Enough, his captivity in Die Another Day; the title sequence even segues into Bond falling just as The World is Not Enough one does). One might argue Eon is trying to regain the Bond-as-underdog footing of Casino Royale, but it comes across more as the desire of the lead actor to prise nourishment from a non-part.


It’s also too soon, only three movies in, for Bond turn to the booze and get the shakes when he raises his weapon; we’ve only really seen him on one mission so far. More, these scenes, revolving around conflict with M, have been so played out by this point that there’s nowhere new to go. I keep going back to The World is Not Enough, where we’ve had M’s culpability thoroughly raked over more than a decade earlier, while Die Another Day also added unnecessarily to that pot. The only route left open is mawkishness over losing a stern but devoted surrogate mother.


There’s also the chance of exploring Bond’s childhood, this being Bond 50. The thing everyone had been demanding that the series do for the movies’ shallowest of spies. The drive to the Highland home is visually splendid, and much of the lighting during the showdown is impressive, but the sequence fails to catch fire dramatically. Silva is reduced to status of hampered heavy, his plans undone. Bond is forced into quipster mode as he destroys his heritage (“I’ve always hated this place”).


I think I was probably a bit too harsh on Craig’s handling of the humour previously. While he is at his best adjusting his cuffs rather than attempting quips, if the lines suit him he carries them off with aplomb. The Q stuff (Ben Wishaw is great) is good fun, but the likes of “Well, I got into some deep water” and his banter with M falls flat. So too does his weeping over her corpse, and the attempt to invest compassion in the guy who threw Matthias in a dumpster as (in the opening sequence) as he is ordered to pursue a villain rather than hang back and save a fellow operative’s life.


It’s probably clear I’m unsympathetic towards honouring M they way Skyfall does, since Dench’s national treasure status has gradually encroached on the series to its detriment. The (otherwise very good) pre-credits sequence has her constantly interrupting the flow by asking what’s going on like an idiot (STFU and let them get on with it). There are attempts to lighten the character (“Oh go on, eject me. See if I care”, her softening with Albert Finney’s gamekeeper) that flounder miserably, and the last half hour seems to be an exercise in waiting for her to finally cark it. Which she does, leaving Bond her bulldog paperweight. Oh, and a videotape. But not yet, that’s the next movie. And then, in Bond 25 she’ll also have left him…


The irony of complaining about the overuse of M is that her replacement Mallory is used incredibly well, set up as a thorn in the side of M and Bond before it’s revealed he’s on the side of the angels (and is good at killing people too!) There is a rather unfortunate “assembling the gang” feel to Skyfall, though, particularly with the trio of Tanner, Q and Mallory getting behind Bond’s plan at the end. This isn’t Scooby Doo, and Bond should essentially be out on his own, unencumbered by family and friends.


There’s also Moneypenny, as far as we can tell a platonic Bond girl relationship (curiously, the second in a row after Camille). While Naomi Harris is always very good, and her character at least makes sure Bond finally has a shave, the bloody scruff bag, her characterisation is strangely regressive (well, you might argue not at all for this franchise), since she acquiesces to Bond’s advice that fieldwork is not for everyone and so takes up the role of flirtatious desk totty. It’s also fairly unlikely that Bond would be working in the field with her and never catch her name until he does so for the reveal gag (also, since everyone guessed anyway, like they did with Waltz, it’s a completely pointless exercise).
  

The best thing the movie does, in terms of its wallow in nostalgia, is blow up the Aston Martin. Hopefully Bond doesn’t get a replacement. Otherwise, Skyfall is a strange mixture of innovation and navel gazing. Mendes isn’t the methodical craftsman Campbell is, but several of the action spots are rather fine, and there’s even the odd occasion (the silhouetted fight in Hong Kong, M quoting Tennyson) where he comes close to visual poetry. There's also a CGI Komodo dragon. Or two.


I’m less impressed by Thomas Newman’s score on revisit; the moments where he introduces electronica are arresting, but he seems to wilfully resist a Barry-esque symphonic approach or bringing in the Bond theme, as if he’s begrudging the legacy (something David Arnold embraced). And, much as I like Adele’s “Crumb-o” song, the opening titles are merely so-so; time to get the lead character out of the credits, as they end up encumbered by him (it also can’t be a coincidence that the best title sequences of the last two decades are both from Martin Campbell entries).


Also not terribly successful (and on, into Spectre) are Mendes’ attempts at political commentary. He’s basically giving a dry run to his arguments about drones in the next entry, supporting Bond as the guy who has to know when to pull the trigger or not. However, I can’t help thinking they’ve bottled it, since Casino Royale managed to present a guy who wasn’t such a nice guy at all as the lead character and still bring the audience along for the ride. Commentary remains possible within that context (if you feel Bond is a suitable forum for such things, and Mendes, as a staunchly liberal filmmaker who also wants to cash an enormous pay cheque, clearly does).


Which means there’s a sense here, much more so than in Casino Royale, where the tweaks to formula were surprisingly seamless for the most part, that mixing things up and attempting a veneer of depth (undermined by the casually offensive sexual politics) serve only to expose how rudimentary Eon’s and Mendes' approach is; Moneypenny, she’s black now; Q, he’s a maybe-gay tech nerd; M… No, we’ve got nothing. Guess we’ll make him a bloke again. But nice this time.


So Skyfall is much akin to Spectre for me, even given the latter has received an unending rain of brickbats while the former basks in the glow of fervent adoration (which one edges which, I probably won’t decide for definite until the dust settles); they're both entertaining Bond pictures, each furnished with a raft of spectacular action sequences, but they aren't top flight 007s. If Spectre is Craig’s final outing, he at least has only one outright turkey in his collection. Get past all the hype, and huge box office, and the thing the 23rd Bond really has going for it is that it’s sporting an immaculate suit. Not quite the emperor’s new clothes, granted, but Skyfall can’t quite fill out its glad rags.




Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

You’re never the same man twice.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
(SPOILERS) Roger Moore playing dual roles? It sounds like an unintentionally amusing prospect for audiences accustomed to the actor’s “Raise an eyebrow” method of acting. Consequently, this post-Saint pre-Bond role (in which he does offer some notable eyebrow acting) is more of a curiosity for the quality of Sir Rog’s performance than the out-there premise that can’t quite sustain the picture’s running time. It is telling that the same story was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 15 years earlier, since the uncanny idea at its core feels like a much better fit for a trim 50 minute anthology series.

Basil Dearden directs, and co-adapted the screenplay from Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham. Dearden started out with Ealing, helming several Will Hay pictures and a segment of Dead of Night (one might imagine a shortened version of this tale ending up there, or in any of the portmanteau horrors that arrived in the year…

I fear I’ve snapped his Gregory.

Twin Peaks 3.14: We are like the Dreamer.
(SPOILERS) In an episode as consistently dazzling as this, piling incident upon incident and joining the dots to the extent it does, you almost begin to wonder if Lynch is making too much sense. There’s a notable upping of the pace in We are like the Dreamer, such that Chad’s apprehension is almost incidental, and if the convergence at Jack Rabbit’s Tower didn’t bring the FBI in with it, their alignment with Dougie Coop can be only just around the corner.

And you people, you’re all astronauts... on some kind of star trek.

Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
(SPOILERS) Star Trek: First Contact (also known as plain First Contact, back when “Star Trek” in the title wasn’t necessarily a selling point to the great unwashed. Or should that be great washed?) is probably about as good as a ST:TNG movie could be, in as much as it actively rejects much of what made the TV series what it is: starchy, placid, smug, platitudinous exchanges about how evolved humanity has become in the 25th century. Yeah, there’s a fair bit of that here too, but it mainly recognises that what made the series good, when it was good, was dense, time travel plotting and Borg. Mostly Borg. Until Borg became, like any golden egg, overcooked. Oh, and there’s that other hallowed element of the seven seasons, the goddam holodeck, but the less said about that the better. Well, maybe a paragraph. First Contact is a solid movie, though, overcoming its inherent limitations to make it, by some distance, the best of the four big screen outings with Pic…

Now you're here, you must certainly stay.

The Avengers 4.1:The Town of No Return
The Avengers as most of us know it (but not in colour) arrives fully-fledged in The Town of No Return: glossier, more eccentric, more heightened, camper, more knowing and more playful. It marks the beginning of slumming it film directors coming on board (Roy Ward Baker) and sees Brian Clemens marking out the future template. And the Steed and Mrs Peel relationship is fully established from the off (albeit, this both was and wasn’t the first episode filmed). If the Steed and Cathy Gale chemistry relied on him being impertinently suggestive, Steed and Emma is very much a mutual thing.

So you made contact with the French operative?

Atomic Blonde (2017)
(SPOILERS) Well, I can certainly see why Focus Features opted to change the title from The Coldest City (the name of the graphic novel from which this is adapted). The Coldest City evokes a nourish, dour, subdued tone, a movie of slow-burn intrigue in the vein of John Le Carré. Atomic Blonde, to paraphrase its introductory text, is not that movie. As such, there’s something of a mismatch here, of the kind of Cold War tale it has its roots in and the furious, pop-soaked action spectacle director David Leitch is intent on turning it into. In the main, his choices succeed, but the result isn’t quite the clean getaway of his earlier (co-directed) John Wick.

Don’t get tipsy. We can’t have you hiccoughing in the coffin.

The Avengers 4.2: The Murder Market
Tony Williamson’s first teleplay for the series picks up where Brian Clemens left off and then some, with murderous goings-on around marriage-making outfit Togetherness Inc (“Where there is always a happy ending”). Peter Graham Scott, in his first of four directing credits, sets out a winning stall where cartoonishness and stylisation are the order of the day. As is the essential absurdity of the English gentleman, with Steed’s impeccable credentials called on to illustrious effect not seen since The Charmers.

Cool. FaceTime without a phone.

Sense8 Season One
(SPOILERS) The Wachowskis do like their big ideas, but all too often their boldness and penchant for hyper-realism drowns out all subtlety. Their aspirations may rarely exceed their technical acumen, but regularly eclipse their narrative skills. And with J Michael Straczynski on board, whose Babylon 5 was marked out by ahead-of-its-time arc plotting but frequently abysmal dialogue, it’s no wonder Sense8 is as frequently clumsy in the telling as it is arresting in terms of spectacle.

I frequently had the feeling that Sense8 was playing into their less self-aware critical faculties, the ones that produced The Matrix Reloaded rave rather than the beautifully modulated Cloud Atlas. Sense8 looks more like the latter on paper: interconnecting lives and storylines meshing to imbue a greater meaning. The truth is, however, their series possesses the slenderest of central plotlines. It’s there for the siblings to hang a collection of cool ideas, set pieces, themes and fascina…

How dare you shush a shushing!

Home (2015)
(SPOILERS) Every so often, DreamWorks Animation offer a surprise, or they at least attempt to buck their usual formulaic approach. Mr. Peabody & Sherman surprised with how sharp and witty it was, fuelled by a plot that didn’t yield to dumbing down, and Rise of the Guardians, for all that its failings, at least tried something different. When such impulses lead to commercial disappointment, it only encourages the studio to play things ever safer, be that with more Madagascars or Croods. Somewhere in Home is the germ of a decent Douglas Adams knock-off, but it would rather settle on cheap morals, trite messages about friendship and acceptance and a succession of fluffy dance anthems: an exercise in thoroughly varnished vacuity.

Those dance anthems come (mostly) courtesy of songstress Rhianna, who also voices teenager Tip, and I’m sure Jeffrey Katzenberg fully appreciated what a box office boon it would be to have her on board. The effect is cumulatively nauseating though, l…

A man who doesn't love easily loves too much.

Twin Peaks 2.17: Wounds and Scars
The real problem with the last half of the second season, now it has the engine of Windom Earle running things, is that there isn’t really anything else that’s much cop. Last week, Audrey’s love interest was introduced: your friend Billy Zane (he’s a cool dude). This week, Coop’s arrives: Annie Blackburn. On top of that, the desperation that is the Miss Twin Peaks Contest makes itself known.

I probably don’t mind the Contest as much as some, however. It’s undoubtedly lame, but it at least projects the season towards some kind of climax. If nothing else, it resolutely highlights Lynch’s abiding fascination with pretty girls, as if that needed any further attention drawn to it.

Special Agent Cooper: You made it just right, Annie.
I also like Heather Graham’s Annie. Whatever the behind the scenes wrangles that led to the disintegration of the Coop-Audrey romance (and it will be rather unceremoniously deconstructed in later Coop comments), it’s certainly the …