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Take 2 – SKYFALL

You never catch all of a movie the first time in a theater. Even if you’re watching it critically, big chunks of it can get by even movie nerds like us. Sometimes you’re blown away by something, or you’re fixated on one or two things, or maybe you’re not even there for the movie, you just needed a place to crash for the night. Either way, once a film drops on home video, taking a second look can open your eyes to new things. And there you go. That’s what this column is all about. Of course we should warn you that if you haven’t Skyfall yet, this is going to be one big long spoiler. Proceed at your own risk. And by the way if you haven’t seen Skyfall yet, what’s wrong with you? Why are you even reading this? Go see Skyfall!

TITLES

Jack Burton – I like the POV/near death experience aspect as Bond descends in the water. Daniel Craig is a rugged, unconventional looking Bond and featuring him in the title sequence is a good idea. I rarely have a problem with the opening titles of Bond films, some are better than others but if that’s the part of the film you remember the most, then it wasn’t a good film. I’m looking at you, Moonraker

TylerDFC – I loved that the opening title imagery foreshadows the entire movie, but you really don’t notice until the second time through. We see paper dragons, skulls, gravestones, fire, and finally Skyfall manor itself. It lends an air of fatalism to the movie right from the jump and adds to the gravitas of the story. 

OPENING SCENE

JB – I like the fact that Bond fails his mission; usually the opening sequence is designed to make him look like Superman, or its an excuse to top the opening of the last film. I guess this one is too, in the sense that we’re supposed to believe Bond sustains a shrapnel wound, absorbs a high powered rifle round to the chest, falls headfirst into a river from a moving train off a 300 foot bridge, goes over a towering waterfall unconscious – and lives. But I do think that Bond’s apparent death sets the narrative stage for stripping the character down to nothing and in effect, rebooting the franchise a second time. That should tell you something about Quantum of Solace.

Tyler – This is one of those action sequences where the beginning and the end could have come from two different movies.  Starting with Bond on foot chasing a bad guy it soon morphs to a motorcycle chase over the rooftops before culminating in a fist fight on top of a moving train. A very fast moving train too, which is all the more extraordinary given that Bond had destroyed or uncoupled the last half of the train earlier. It’s an exciting, breathlessly paced sequence culminating in one of my favorite images in some time; M with her back to the camera looking out her window as the rain sheets down and the soundtrack fills with the roar of running water.  It’s a very stark, shocking ending to the pre-credit sequence and leads beautifully in to the opening titles.

THEME SONG

JB – Adele’s theme song is okay, but I don’t understand all the breathless fawning over it. She’s better than Rita Coolidge, about the same as Carly Simon and doesn’t hold a candle to Shirley Bassey. Skyfall, with its moon/June lyrics and Adele’s uninspired delivery falls somewhere in the middle.

Tyler – Do you mean Academy Award™ and Grammy Award™ winning singer Adele’s Academy Award™ and Grammy Award™ winning theme song, Skyfall? I think we might be legally required to refer to the tune by that name from now on. We don’t want to get sued, do we?

There is just something I really like about the song. It has a weight to it and like the opening titles really makes the viewer sense Skyfall is not going to be a typical Bond movie. It is also unbelievably catchy and has embedded itself as an ear worm in my brain more than any other song in recent memory. Whether that is the rhyming or just the very Bond style music I’m not sure. You can count me as a fan though.

THE DIRECTOR

JB – I like the choice. Sam Mendes brings an artistic sensibility to the Bond franchise that we haven’t seen since Casino Royale. And he brings back an awareness of what makes a story breathe. His action set pieces are more tasteful than what we’re used to seeing in the post Bourne age. He knows how to coax an appropriate amount of emotion out of his cast without resorting to sentimental trickery, and he has a good sense of how to get into Bond’s head without necessarily bringing everything to the surface. We understand the tension and the conflict inside of the character, but it comes out in his actions and the words of others, not from his own lips. It allows us to know Bond, without completely unmasking him. 

Tyler – This is the difference between a franchise cookie cutter sequel and an action movie with a brain. Sam Mendes is an unconventional choice that paid off big time for the producers. Mendes did a great job balancing the need to satisfy the action movie fan while also imbuing the movie with deeper symbolism and a dark tone. For instance, the thematic element of rebirth in Skyfall is symbolized in the many, many images of water. The movie begins with Bond falling into water to “die”. At the end he has to survive being dragged down by a gunman into the ice water of the marsh. In between it is almost constantly raining. More than any of the other movies in the series Skyfall could have been a bleak and depressing affair. What is extraordinary is that the cinematography in Skyfall is probably the best in the entire series.  

THE CAST

DANIEL CRAIG

Tyler– When Casino Royale came out much was made about Daniel Craig’s portrayal of Bond as more thug and less suave. Bond’s methods – while usually resulting in millions of dollars in damage to any number of buildings, assorted vehicles, and many innocent citizens – more times than not get the job done. This time, despite an amazing amount of damage inflicted on Istanbul, Bond decidedly does not get the job done. The aftermath finds Bond drinking away his days and nights trying to fade away. It is only when MI6 is directly attacked that he comes back to service. Unfortunately, he’s a wreck. He can’t shoot straight, he can’t pass the physical requirements, and he is openly hostile toward a psychologist evaluating his mental state. I was taken aback by just how affecting it is to see Bond in that state. Daniel Craig did a terrific job selling midlife crisis Bond and it fueled the movie with uncertainty. Can Bond accomplish this mission? For once I wasn’t sure. In the end the answer is a resounding “NO” but no one really seems to mind. Don’t worry, we’ll address that shortly. 

JB – Craig is Bond. Enough said.  

BÉRÉNICE MARLOHE

JB – I’m not sure why Berenice Marlohe gets static for her portrayal of Severine. She’s pretty, she has a dark past, a sexy accent and her name is symbolic (it means ‘origin’). Bond offers to help her if she leads him to her boss – which she does, only to be killed for her troubles. Her job is to die, but only after she makes Bond look like he’s conducting a competent investigation, not just sitting around getting drunk and waiting for someone to tell him where the hollowed out volcano is. This is how Bond movies work. If you have a problem with that, don’t hate the player. Hate the game. 

Tyler – I really liked Severine. The scene with her and Bond in the casino is terrific. She radiates fear and I thought Marlohe did a hell of a good job. She has a coldness that matches Bond’s, her smile never reaches her eyes. It’s a brief role and I wish there had been more meat to it but considering M is the Bond Girl this go around it’s not bad.

SUPPORTING CAST

Tyler – Skyfall sees not only Dame Judi Dench (M) return for her 7th film but newcomers Ralph Fiennes (Mallory), Naomi Harris (Moneypenny) , and Ben Whishaw (Q), joining in roles that seem to point toward series regular. While not given a large amount to do, all of them make the most of their screen time. The sequence with Bond chasing Silva through the Underground and getting more and more testy with Q over the radio is one of the funniest highlights in the film. M’s verbal sparring in scenes with Mallory as well as the Prime Minister on matters of national security crackle with intensity. It is great that after 7 movies Dench finally got to do more than demand the whereabouts of Bond while ensconced in MI6 HQ.

Javier Bardem was another unconventional choice that paid off brilliantly. Even though Bardem doesn’t show up until half way through the movie, once there he commands the screen. His first scene with Bond is one of the highlights of Skyfall. The best Bond villains are the ones that are closest in character to Bond. As a former agent Silva is a shadowy reflection of Bond and Bardem’s performance is playful one minute and deadly serious the next. This constant shift in tone from flamboyant mastermind to unhinged psychopath keeps both Bond, and the audience, on edge. 

JB – I am physically incapable of criticizing Judi Dench. Javier Bardem is an excellent villain whose only real mistake (other than trying to kill James Bond) is not showing up until halfway through the film. Mallory’s purpose is to be there at the end of the film, but Ralph Fiennes’ wonderfully uptight portrayal makes me wish they’d just kept Bond set in the Sixties. I cover Moneypenny below, so I won’t give away that I think she’s useless. Ben Whishaw’s Q is not bad, but we’ll see how he shapes up in the next film, now that Bond’s no longer using gadgets. Desmond Llewellyn played the Quartermaster like a stern parent, John Cleese was the Timothy Dalton of Q’s, and while Whishaw’s “computer genius” version feels a tad derivative, the adolescent contempt this younger incarnation clearly feels toward Bond is something I’d like to see more of.  

THE PLOT

MISSION: REDUNDANT

JB – Oh no! A secret list containing the names of all our agents has been stolen! First, wasn’t that the plot of the first Mission Impossible film? Second, why would a spy agency keep that kind of information in one place anyway? And what would anybody be doing carrying something like that around Istanbul? The movie never attempts to explain how this extremely improbable situation came to be, and that’s just lazy writing. While you’re rooting for Bond to retrieve the list, it’s hard not to think about how stupid it is for such a thing to exist, let alone how stupid you’d have to be to lose it. 

Tyler – Oh, there is a very good explanation for having all of the most precious MI6 information on a laptop. Say it with me class: “MacGuffin”. Or is that “McGuffin”? Someone get George Lucas on the line, he can help sort this one out. 

IS MONEYPENNY INCOMPETENT?

JB – No fewer than three times during the opening sequence, she has a clear shot at the guy Bond is chasing, and she either does nothing or misses the shot. She also fails to advise Bond to “duck”. We establish later that Bond could hear her speaking to M over his earpiece. I’m not sure she couldn’t have said “James, get down!” instead of just shooting him in the lungs.

The minute he saw Moneypenny back at HQ he should have broken her jaw.  

Tyler – I didn’t see Moneypenny as incompetent. She held her own during the opening chase scene and had Bond’s back in the Macau casino when she beat down a gunman that would have had gotten the drop on Bond. Yes, she shot Bond but these things happen in the world of high stakes espionage. 

BOND MUST HAVE GOTTEN SHOT IN THE HEAD

JB – Did you notice how Bond seemed to be the only person in MI6 who didn’t know about the secret bunker? He was only gone for three months! We’re told that Silva knew about it – and he hadn’t worked for MI6 since Pierce Brosnan was James Bond. What gives? 

Tyler – Well, everyone else was already working there. Silva knew about it because he knew everything. I mean that. Literally EVERYTHING. For instance he knows the land speed of both an African AND a European swallow, laden or not. He knows the question to the answer “42”. He knows what you are thinking right now, and it displeases him.  

MI6 IS PSYCHIC

JB – Remember when Bond digs the bullet fragments out of his chest, metaphorically re-birthing himself AND providing their first lead in the case? Apparently only three men in the world use this type of super exotic depleted uranium ammunition. I want to know who the hell makes military grade depleted uranium ammunition who has only three customers, all of them terrorists? THAT’s who Bond should be looking for, but of course that would take too long. Instead we’re asked to believe that although they have no idea who this highly wanted criminal is, where he comes from, or who he works for – based on these bullet shards we know he’ll be in Singapore tomorrow. Wow, that was simple. So, if he was that easy to find, why do they know so little about him? And why is he even free? 

Tyler – I’m not sure why Bond couldn’t have a doctor at Mi6 secret HQ look at the bullet wound rather than digging around in his chest with a knife. As cool as the nighttime sniper scene in Shanghai is I have no idea what happened. I don’t know who Patrice was trying to kill, why he’s being paid in a casino chip, and why he has a special spot in his case for said chip. 

WELCOME TO SCOTLAND

JB – Skipping past The Joker’s Silva’s amazingly complex escape, I’d like to know what Bond’s plan was when he whisked M to Scotland. Bond was informed earlier in the movie that all his possessions had been sold off, yet he shows up at Skyfall looking for the gun room. Even if he’d been able to find some guns, you’re telling me his whole plan was to just hold Silva’s men off all by himself? And why, when Mallory discovered what Bond was doing, did he just shrug and walk out of the room? Narratively the last half of Skyfall is a mess, and I still have trouble making sense of anyone’s actions. 

Tyler – Thematically I think the ending makes sense but it has to do some heavy lifting to get there. I get the idea that Bond expected there to be more weapons in the house but what he hoped to accomplish as a one man army against Silva’s seemingly inexhaustible crew of mercenaries is a mystery. Bond’s return to home for the last stand, while symbolically expressive, is incredibly foolhardy. 

THE ENDGAME

JB – I know it doesn’t sound like it, but I am a big fan of this film. But what weighs it down is sloppy storytelling. Let’s go back to that Macguffin. This is an almost obligatory plot device, this being an espionage thriller. But all I could think about as M lay dying was that she did this to herself. If you don’t believe me, change “file of all NATO spies” to “sex tape of M with Bond” and you’ll see what I mean. Why would such a thing even exist, and why would M ever have put it in a position to BE stolen? Why was a laughably poor marksman like Moneypenny in the field with a 00 agent in the first place? Why did she make the decision to reinstate a headcase like Bond to go after Silva instead of picking a better agent? M got herself killed, and it was Bond’s violently incompetent plan that did the killing, and with Mallory’s blessing. When you connect the dots, everyone in this story comes off looking foolish or incompetent or overly sentimental. But change that Prime Mover to something less well defined (see the briefcase in Pulp Fiction) and it changes the complexion of the story. It doesn’t solve all these problems but it allows us to maintain the same level of urgency while making our protagonists look less like fools. As it is, far too many plot points depend on us overlooking incredible levels of stupidity from the very characters we’re being asked to root for. 

But we have to remember that this is a Bond movie, and the character of Bond, and the world he lives in have attained a somewhat mythological status in our society. Skyfall is allegory steeped in pathos and garnished with explosive goodness. And in that respect, it comes through with flying colors. We have a great Bond, and a great villain who shares ties with him. The supporting cast ably shares in this epic torment (Naomie Harris herself was fine, it’s her character I took issue with), the locations are exotic – and we find out a little about our hero without quite knocking him off his pedestal of invincibility. On the whole, Skyfall is exciting and well paced, the cinematography is fantastic and the story – as narratively dodgy as it is – takes us exactly where we need to go. It draws us into Bond’s world and makes us value what happens to him and the people he cares about. Skyfall is clearly about renewal, and it literally does reset the Bond universe back to Dr. No. In some ways, this felt as awkward as rebooting the Spider-Man franchise so soon. But Quantum was a dangerous aberration that almost cracked the foundation that Casino Royale so carefully laid down. If this were not a Bond film I probably wouldn’t like it very much, but it IS, and the franchise feels back on track now. I couldn’t be more excited for the next one.  

Tyler – It took 2 tries but this is the reboot that sticks. After the stumble of Quantum of Solace after the superb (and still supreme) Casino Royale I think the fans were going to embrace any movie that wasn’t edited to illicit seizures. That Skyfall turned out as well as it did was really just a bonus. I like that to go back to their roots the producers of Skyfall took a mythic approach to things. What is more mythic than 2 brothers fighting over the love of a mother? In a movie awash with imagery of death and rebirth, the final outcome of M’s death was all but inevitable. Where I think the movie came up short was not putting all of the pieces in place to get to that ending. I think a couple of additional scenes would have helped to sell the ending better. When the name “Skyfall” is mentioned early on during Bond’s psych evaluation the audience has no idea what it means. Later we learn it is the name given Bond’s ancestral home. But what was the purpose of doing word association early on? Most likely it was to get an “A ha!” moment from the audience when we see the name of the house. However this is a cheap tactic that ultimately doesn’t make any sense.

If there had been more with Bond opening up a bit about his past I think it would have worked a lot better. In the end this does make the movie frustrating because while Skyfall is very, very good I think it had the potential to be phenomenal. It is a missed opportunity but compared to other movies in the franchise history it is definitely in the upper echelon.  

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