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…

Garage freak? Jesus. What kind of a crazy fucking story is this?

All the President’s Men (1976)
It’s fairly routine to find that films lavished with awards ceremony attention really aren’t all that. So many factors go into lining them up, including studio politics, publicity and fashion, that the true gems are often left out in the cold. On some occasions all the attention is thoroughly deserved, however. All the President’s Men lost out to Rocky for Best Picture Oscar; an uplifting crowd-pleaser beat an unrepentantly low key, densely plotted and talky political thriller. But Alan J. Pakula’s film had already won the major victory; it turned a literate, uncompromising account of a resolutely unsexy and over-exposed news story into a huge hit. And even more, it commanded the respect of its potentially fiercest (and if roused most venomous) critics; journalists themselves. All the President’s Men is a masterpiece and with every passing year it looks more and more like a paean to a bygone age, one where the freedom of the press was assumed rather than a…

Oh look, there’s Colonel Mortimer, riding down the street on a dinosaur!

One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing (1975)
(SPOILERS) There’s no getting round the dinosaur skeleton in the room here: yellow face. From the illustrious writer-director team who brought us Mary Poppins, no less. Disney’s cheerfully racist family movie belongs to a bygone era, but appreciating its merits doesn’t necessarily requires one to subscribe to the Bernard Manning school of ethnic sensitivity.

I’m not going to defend the choice, but, if you can get past that, and that may well be a big if, particularly Bernard Bresslaw’s Fan Choy (if anything’s an unwelcome reminder of the Carry Ons lesser qualities, it’s Bresslaw and Joan Sims) there’s much to enjoy. For starters, there’s two-time Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner Ustinov (as mastermind Hnup Wan), funny in whatever he does (and the only Poirot worth his salt), eternally berating his insubordinate subordinate Clive Revill (as Quon).

This is a movie where, even though its crude cultural stereotyping is writ large, the dialogue frequen…

You keep a horse in the basement?

The ‘Burbs (1989)
(SPOILERS) The ‘Burbs is Joe Dante’s masterpiece. Or at least, his masterpiece that isn’t his bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you masterpiece Gremlins 2: The New Batch, or his high profile masterpiece Gremlins. Unlike those two, the latter of which bolted out of the gate and took audiences by surprise with it’s black wit subverting the expected Spielberg melange, and the first which was roundly shunned by viewers and critics for being absolutely nothing like the first and waving that fact gleefully under their noses, The ‘Burbs took a while to gain its foothold in the Dante pantheon. 

It came out at a time when there had been a good few movies (not least Dante’s) taking a poke at small town Americana, and it was a Tom Hanks movie when Hanks was still a broad strokes comedy guy (Big had just made him big, Turner and Hooch was a few months away; you know you’ve really made it when you co-star with a pooch). It’s true to say that some, as with say The Big Lebowski, “got it” on fi…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

You’re the Compliance Officer. It’s your call.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)
(SPOILERS) The mealy-mouthed title speaks volumes about the uncertainty with which Tom Clancy’s best-known character has been rebooted. Paramount has a franchise that has made a lot of money, based on a deeply conservative, bookish CIA analyst (well, he starts out that way). How do you reconfigure him for a 21st century world (even though he already has been, back in 2003) where everything he stands for is pretty much a dirty word? The answer, it seems, is to go for an all-purpose sub-James Bond plan to bring American to its knees, with Ryan as a fresh (-ish) recruit (you know, like Casino Royale!) and surprising handiness in a fight. Yes, Jack is still a smart guy (and also now, a bit, -alec), adept at, well, analysing, but to survive in the modern franchise sewer he needs to be more than that. He needs to kick arse. And wear a hoodie. This confusion, inability to coax a series into being what it’s supposed to be, might explain the sour response to its …

The head is missing... and... he's the wrong age.

Twin Peaks 3.7: There’s a body all right.
First things first: my suggestion that everyone’s favourite diminutive hitman, Ike “The Spike” Stadtler, had been hired by the Mitchum brothers was clearly erroneous in the extreme, although the logistics of how evil Coop had the contingency plan in place to off Lorraine and Dougie-Coop remains a little unclear right now. As is how he was banged up with the apparent foresight to have on hand ready blackmail tools to ensure the warden would get him out (and why did he wait so long about it, if he could do it off the bat?)


Launching right in with no preamble seems appropriate for his episode, since its chock-a-block with exposition and (linear) progression, almost an icy blast of what settles for reality in Twin Peaks after most of what has gone before this season, the odd arm-tree aside. Which might please James Dyer, who in the latest Empire “The Debate”, took the antagonistic stance to the show coming back and dismissed it as “gibbering nonsen…

I freely chose my response to this absurd world. If given the opportunity, I would have been more vigorous.

The Falcon and the Snowman (1985)
(SPOILERS) I suspect, if I hadn’t been ignorant of the story of Christopher Boyce and Andrew Daulton Lee selling secrets to the Soviets during the ‘70s, I’d have found The Falcon and the Snowman less engaging than I did. Which is to say that John Schlesinger’s film has all the right ingredients to be riveting, including a particularly camera-hogging performance from Sean Penn (as Lee), but it’s curiously lacking in narrative drive. Only fitfully does it channel the motives of its protagonists and their ensuing paranoia. As such, the movie makes a decent primer on the case, but I ended up wondering if it might not be ideal fodder for retelling as a miniseries.

It's not an exact science, this business.

The Mummy (2017)
(SPOILERS) A pinch of salt is usually needed when reports of a blockbuster’s rep as great or disastrous start singing from the same song sheet, as more often than not, they’re somewhere in between. A week ago, Wonder Woman was being hailed as some kind of miracle (or wonder), when really, it’s just another decent-but-formulaic superhero movie. This week, there have been post-mortems up the wazoo over The Mummy’s less-than-remarkable opening gross (which have a predictably US-centric flavour; it’s still the biggest global figure for a Tom Cruise movie). Is The Mummy as terrible as has been made out? No, of course not. It isn’t particularly good, but that doesn’t make it significantly worse than any dozen or so mediocre blockbusters you’d care to pick that have been lavished with far less opprobrium.

The thinking behind the savaging is understandable, though. There’s so much hubris on display here, it’s ridiculous, from Universal assuming they can fashion a Dark Universe …

You may not wanna wake up tomorrow, but the day after that might just be great.

Blood Father (2016)
(SPOILERS) There are points during Blood Father where it feels like Mel is publically and directly addressing his troubled personal life. Through ultra-violence. I’m not really sure if that’s a good idea or not, but the movie itself is finely-crafted slice of B-hokum, a picture that knows its particular sandpit and how to play most effectively in it.