Skyfall thoughts

Hey, I went to the movies! Second time this year! I miss it.

* Skyfall was good. I enjoyed it. I don’t understand the contention that it’s the best Bond movie ever. I’ve seen very few Bond movies but I can tell you that I enjoyed GoldenEye and Casino Royale and very probably Quantum of Solace more at the times I saw them in the theater than I enjoyed Skyfall yesterday.

* It reminded me an awful lot of the experience of watching The Avengers, which was the last time I actually went to a movie theater and bought a ticket and watched a movie, in that it was a good time overall with strong action sequences punctuating long boring stretches. Now, Skyfall‘s long boring stretches weren’t nearly as long or as boring as The Avengers. This movie’s non-battle character interactions were actually capable of making me laugh more than twice, and it was more accomplished as filmmaking on nearly every conceivable level, up to and including simply giving you lovely things to look at as often as it could, even when what was going on was otherwise a bit on the dull side, so in fact “boring” may be overstating the case. But yes, same overall pattern.

* The dullness was particularly dull in the long first third of the movie, following the opening sequence in which Bond appears to have fallen to his death. Since it’s unlikely that the rest of the film was going to play out in flashback, we knew he was still alive; since it’s a James Bond movie, we knew he’d be back on the job. Everything that led up to his resurrection and reinstatement, therefore, was just playing out the clock. You can get away with an awful lot when you have a set of strong, visually magnetic actors being all authoritative at one another, but that’s only papering over the lack of dramatic drive during this section.

* Kind of felt like a James Bond-fronted Christopher Nolan Batman movie cover band, didn’t? Numerous plot points and even specific mechanics and images were ported nearly wholesale from The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. I don’t know enough about the film’s production history to tell if this was deliberate or a coincidence, and frankly don’t care enough to go look it up, but man was it striking. Javier Bardem playing the Joker made it all the more so. So did the identical “he let himself be captured” scenes, the calm supervillain in the isolated jail cell, two students of the same master, etc etc etc.

* What was up with the Evil Homosexual vibes from Silva in that one scene, by the way? I almost couldn’t believe my ears and eyes, it was so flagrant and anachronistic. Sure, it gave the movie a chance to imply that Bond has had homosexual experiences too, but that’s not really enough, is it. Also hinky: We’re not to think any less of M for handing Silva over to be tortured to death. It’s on him for not understanding!

* I’ve spent a lot of time giving everything from the Nolan Batman movies to Homeland the business for their ludicrous plot holes, so I’d like to point out to everyone that I’m not going to say a word about any of that here. The reason why is because this is a James Bond movie, and even if it’s in the more serious Daniel Craig mode, and even if fancy-pants director Sam Mendes is in charge, no one here has any delusions about what that means. Contrast it with Homeland, allegedly conceived as a sort of penance for its creators’ stint writing terrorists as supervillains and torturers as hard-man heroes on 24 yet increasingly driven by supervillainy and soap-operatic sloppiness itself; or with Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, which despite the marvelous villain performances and skyline photography in its final two installments spent so much time cultivating itself as an “adult” take on the superhero genre that it did nothing to enrich its inch-deep dorm-room philosophizing and a titular protagonist who’s frequently incidental to the advancement and resolution of the action. Live by Serious Business, die by Serious Business. This movie never did, to its great credit, and so there’s no need to put the boot in for how all of Silva’s fake/rogue cops know exactly which subway station he’ll be fleeing into and out of at every moment.

* What a pretty, painterly film! Again, the fact that it’s a James Bond movie cuts against the pretension of, say, having not one but two explicit homages to Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog. I haven’t seen a Sam Mendes film in a long long time, deliberately, but I must say I’m impressed by his use of all those lovely lovely rectangles of imagery. Bond overlooking the London skyline, the Romantic/Byronic Wanderer in the urban wilderness. Bond bound, his back to us, framed by row upon row of jerry-rigged computer mainframes. Bond in the mouth of the dragon. The Bond Girl forced to live out the William Tell routine against a backdrop of crumbled totalitarian sculpture. Fighting in silhouette against a backdrop of LED signage. You never knew what the next juicy morsel of eye candy would be, and that helped propel you through the slow spots. The use of silhouettes in particular also helped compensate for what I assume was Mendes’s inexperience in shooting action, not that you’d necessarily know it from watching the shootout in the hearing room or the opening motorcycle chase or the showdown at Skyfall.

* Komodo dragons! I love love love that they didn’t limit Bond’s “you gotta be kidding me” look to a single shot — he kept looking at the thing incredulously for several seconds, even when busy getting flipped upside-down by his opponent.

* Ben Whishaw as Q: They’re casting roles in blockbuster franchises directly for Tumblr at this point, aren’t they?

* Extremely good-looking people are almost like aliens. Daniel Craig as Bond is one of the most iconic examples of ugly-pretty’s male division since Jagger; the man wears a suit impossibly well, and hell, the movie was basically built around how he looks much older than he is. Clever of them to leave that just-graying stubble intact for so much of the movie as well. And Berenice Marlohe as his ill-fated entry point into Silva’s world — when they’re having that conversation in the casino, her features were so perfectly, oddly symmetrical and striking she seemed like a special effect. Which of course is how Bond Girls are employed, historically, but seeing the two of them together like that really brought it home.

* Her beauty is less unusual or otherworldly, but I also thought this was the best I’ve ever seen Naomie Harris look. Making Moneypenny a genuine peer of Bond’s does a lot to right the ship.

* I didn’t feel at all cheated by the climactic battle sequence, which is almost unheard of in the major franchises these days. With the possible exception of the out-of-nowhere sudden paramount importance of Bond’s gamekeeper, which I didn’t mind because it was Albert Finney with a beard and a shotgun, everything was properly weighted from a dramatic perspective as well as cohesive and coherent and intelligible as action. Nice work, gang.

* Silva pretty much won, right? He killed M. He died not knowing it, though, and I suppose that’s what matters.

* How nice to watch a big action movie in which details of framing, editing, and sound design matter. Proper superspy storytelling requires its leads to be aware of the people on their periphery, the sounds beneath the sounds, the corner you’ll turn two corners from now; proper superspy filmmaking requires the same, and the deft touch necessary to nudge the audience in the direction its characters are headed, just a couple paces behind. Simple things like Bond asking Séverine about her “friends,” and then oh look, a couple of goons are standing out-of-focus over her shoulder in the distance — so deeply pleasurable to me. Bond is nothing if not a cinema of pleasure.

* PS: This is as good an excuse as any to direct you to my review of the three Matt Damon Bourne movies and the previous two Daniel Craig Bond movies, probably my single favorite piece of film writing I’ve done for this blog. Hope you dig it.

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12 Responses to Skyfall thoughts

  1. Yaron says:

    Did you really think Quantum of Solace was better than Skyfall? What the what? That movie is pure plot, complete nonsense start to finish. The car chase in the intro was ridiculously poor as well, could not tell what was going on at all. It had no character or soul, and barely any story.

    I also find it odd you don’t mention Judie Dench as M at all – she was the heart and soul of this movie and pretty much outperformed everyone. Agreed about the odd and striking similarities to the recent Batman movies, that was just… odd. To the point that I could predict what was going to happen during the middle third of the film.

    You’re bang-on about the cinematography and direction, though. This is an extremely well-crafted film. Personally, Casino Royale’s probably still my favorite, I just love it to bits, but this came so very, very close. I wish they’d given Bardem more than two scenes to really shine, which is kind of my one big problem with it. He has two brilliant scenes and afterwards he’s just there to make life difficult for everyone involved.

  2. jim says:

    This review lined up pretty closely with my own take on Skyfall. Beautiful at points and some nice set pieces, but also a ton of Nolanesque moments, to the point of distraction. Bond even says “There’s a storm coming” at one point. And while I liked Bardem’s performance, his opening monologue was pretty weak, especially when compared to the ways Nolan’s Bat-baddies pontificated. I really like the idea that Bardem’s character never gets to see that his plan worked: it makes up, for me at least, for the over-the-top staging of that final scene in the chapel. Shades of American Beauty’s ending there for me, and not in a good way (though Bardem’s final scene was terrific for how over-the-top-in-a-good-way it was). What did you think of the Adele song?

    I’m also on board with Quantum of Solace: it’s a great revenge flick, and I’ve never really understood the hate for it. The opening scene is not only easy to follow, but Bond’s final gunshot (the only time he fires his gun in the entire sequence) is a nice exclamation point on an enjoyable opening.

    • I just realized another parallel, albeit an inverted one: in The Dark Knight Rises, the antagonist dies erroneously believing she succeeded; in Skyfall, the antagonist dies erroneously believing he failed.

    • Like most Adele songs, this Adele song barely registered with me. I can hear her singing the word “Skyyyfalllllll” in my head, but even now I couldn’t tell you if I’m thinking of the actual way she sings it, or just how you’d imagine Adele would sing the word “Skyfall” in a James Bond theme song.

  3. Chris Ward says:

    Not enough product placement. Thought it was cuter than it was. “50 Years. James Bond will return!” blarrrrrghhhhhhhh.

  4. Rev'd '76 says:

    What I didn’t understand was the necessity of having the opening credits be a version of the movie in miniature. It didn’t add to my enjoyment of the film in any significant way; if anything, it underscored the extremely formulaic nature of Bond films. I like being able to take the credits sequence as a little music video by itself; having this one linked to the film so note-for-note in terms of scenes & setpieces made it into little more than a contrived hood ornament. I can barely even -remember- the music now, so slight an impression it left.

    I also didn’t enjoy the opening of CASINO ROYALE, with all its CG pretending to old / mod animation styles. In terms of style I didn’t dig this one much either; visually it was less clunky and prone to attract attention to itself as being ‘too perfect’ to do by hand (cf. the moire patterns or fractal trumps, for example) but its edits were also too mechanical / obvious. While I wasn’t a fan of QUANTUM, at least its opening creds / title music weren’t predictable retreads. I think the music had to work harder to make up for the clunkiness of the title, and the White / Keys pairing did a noble job of turning the potentially cheesetastical sexy dunescape credits into a properly rockin’, soulful Bond vid.

    • I liked the opening credits fine, though again I didn’t quite get the fuss some have made about them; I think the credits for Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 2 were a lot better! Seriously, they were gorgeous.

  5. Jim D. says:

    I think some, if not a lot, of the credit for how beautiful this film was has to go to the cinematographer, Roger Deakins. He’s done a thing or two.

    • That was an exciting moment, seeing his name pop up on the screen at the beginning. If nothing else it explains the miraculous twilight lighting for the final battle sequence.

      • Jim D. says:

        I know! I actually nudged Rachel when I saw him name and I’m pretty sure she rolled her eyes. “Whatever, nerd”

  6. Matt W says:

    The thing that’s sticking with me about Skyfall, a couple days after watching it, is the way it sort of chin-scratchingly toys with the question of whether people are disposable before it seems to decide “sure.”

    Ralph Fiennes and Naomie Harris fitting into pre-existing slots in the denoument, final-montage-of-The-Wire style, felt pretty bleak to me, and man–the lack of care that Bond shows for the woman who conducts him to her master’s lair, –that remark about the “waste of good Scotch–” geez, I don’t know.

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