Sunday, November 11, 2012

Skyfall Review

Skyfall continues this rebooted quest to humanize James Bond. Here the question is “what happens when James Bond gets old?”. It’s an awkward question. The franchise started fresh three movies ago.  Bond was new and untested in Casino Royale. Daniel Criag still looks great (fuck, is that 43? Man looks 32). But, as I learned at the credits, this is the 50th Anniversary of Bond films. Alright, that’s a fair question then. But it grows more awkward as the film itself refuses to answer, only repeat it.

The movie starts off great. Daniel Graig’s face, while running, channels focused vigor. You don’t see him open-mouthed, sucking air. Ten minute sprint across variable terrain? James Bond is not even winded! Got shot in the lung? You get a grunt from James Bond. He shakes it off. You cannot hamper this man! Graig’s performance perfectly syncs with the beautiful, smooth, visuals. You feel fresh watching him work. Like you've never been tired in your life. Then at the end of this sequence, some new agent, presumably new as nothing is said but she lacks the control of James, takes a wild shot and hits our boy. But we’re told it’s James’ fault because he’s old!? What!? HE HAD THAT GUY!

(Also, Bond is shot, TWICE, falls about a mile into water, landing on the back of his head, then appears to drown as his body is kicked down river. How did he survive that? Other times, when James has been “killed”, an explanation was provided. Special chemical from Q to mimic death. Fake bullets. Something. Did I miss it?)

Now, the film isn't shy about the idea of Bond being old. It comes right out and asks. Then it reminds you with a very subtle metaphor about an old warship being towed away for scrap. Then it asks again. All the action of the film has stopped, by the way. The film wants you to take this idea very seriously and is giving you a lot of time to mull it over. Then the film comes right out and calls James old. Keeps calling him old. Ect. Evidence? Hanging from an elevator that goes up God Knows how many floors, James’ grip slips for a moment.  The constant questioning of Bond’s ability doesn't make me take the idea any more serious. I got irritated the question went no further and denied anything else being said. Nothing shown convinced me. The harping only dragged the middle of the film way down.

The bit of espionage James is working on is, if I can be honest, more than a little embarrassing. Technology is treated like it is too complicated to understand. Like the audience is mystified by its real workings. Remember all the action films made in the 90's when the villain hacker would speedily hit every key on the keyboard and launch every missile in the world or whatever? Same here. And it’s always so easy. “Few key strokes”. Ok, I don’t know how to hack NORAD but I know you don’t start pounding keys in DOS. Doesn't matter though! For all the threats of being able to alter reality with a laptop, nothing comes of it. Portable radios end up being the heavy guns. I was never sure of what Skyfall was saying. Are we mocking new technology? Is old or young better than the other? Should I be rooting for something or just taking a new perspective?

What I am God Damn sure of is that Skyfall was fucking stunning to look at. Skyfall nailed globetrotting. NAILED. Lots of times I can’t tell what city I’m looking at with world spanning films. Skyfall always had a beautiful local quirk in every shot. The location was made critical to the action, it could happen nowhere else. Inventive! I felt I had seen a real piece of Shanghai. Understood a small aspect of the culture there. Marveled at what the rest of the world had accomplished while I had no idea! The use of light in every scene was so striking that even a film novice, myself, couldn’t miss it. This is where the film speaks. So eloquently. Beautifully. The final scene was a work of art and I am not using an ounce of hyperbole. That final scene can stand on its own to just be admired. Put it on loop and it would fit, comfortably, with authority, and rightly, in any museum of art.

That’s what sustains the film until Javier Bardem, as Silva, comes through to own it. He seems goofy at first. You’ll laugh at him. Then he tells an amazing story that I’m sure will be repeated as often as The Dark Knight’s “die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain”. His shifting from creepy to scary to funny and back is sublime. There is no hesitation in his performance. He comes out fearless and the audience has to play catch-up. Daniel Craig seems to appreciate him as much; their scenes together bring out the best James Bond Craig has, the one we saw in the torture scene in Casino Royale. I got absorbed. No more thoughts of how much the ticket cost me. I was there and living it. Silva throwing a train at James slaps the audience awake. Finally there is noise, breathing, life, again! M finally answers the question about Bond being old! I loved Bérénice Marlohe’s Sévérine. Intriguing from the first, she does not need to speak to communicate with the audience. I knew, just from the way she walked, that she was the one who ordered the hit when James first meets her. Just the way she stood there looking at James I knew she was a big deal in a criminal empire. Just before James comments that she’s nervous I felt it. Reading her performance was a joy. I felt like James Bond decoding her. Was that a lie she just said? Why is she walking over there? Why sit like that? What’s her game? While I’m questioning the metaphysics of this movie, she pulls me in, getting me to enjoy it again.

I can only shrug at “James Bond is old”. It’s forgotten in the end. Graig is tireless again. Dead-on accurate again. Fights a man under a frozen lake without ever losing the upper-hand. Again, was this a serious question? I appreciate the focus on Bond as a person. The slow exploration of Bond’s character is unique in the fiction world. After 20-odd movies, now we’re asking “yes, but how’d he do that? Why?”. It’s wonderful to account for the total spectrum of the character in each of these new films. Graig is able to balance all the outlandish, charming, and deadly parts of James Bond’s history. To pay off years worth of audience investment with nods, smiles, jokes, and homages. He knows. He knows we know. That invitation alone makes Craig one of the strongest Bond’s. The shame of the fumbled middle story elements is only so great because of the heights the rest of the film achieves. So egregious because the middle is the meat of the experience. You can’t really love a movie if the middle sucks. That interruption. High marks still accorded. The prospects for the next film are still exciting. I still love James Bond.

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