Wednesday, November 21, 2012

SKYFALL 2012 Review

Skyfall is an incredibly well-done Bond film. I had fun watching it, and I definitely think it ranks as one of the best Bonds I've ever seen. Four out of four stars. So go see it.

Boom, review over. Right?

Not a chance.

There's already been heavy praise for this film, and I don't disagree in the slightest. This movie is everything people have been saying it is. It's fun, action-packed, has a good story and better acting. But that's not the whole tale about this movie, and a lot of reviewers that I love and respect have been leaving things out.

The most common comment you'll hear about this film is how wonderfully it was shot and how great it looks. Much of the praise has been heaped on director Sam Mendes (PiT favorite) and cinematographer Roger Deakins (you've seen his work in The Shawshank Redemption and No Country For Old Men). They deserve every bit of laud and adulation for making this movie look so great and Deakins is almost certainly going to win an Oscar for Best Achievement in Cinematography, but I think most everyone has been missing the point. They see the big things that this pair did and went bonkers over it, but I have yet to see them get any love for the little things they did that most other directors and movies and cinematographers mess up (I'm looking your way Marc Forster). So let's take a look at these little things for a moment, yus?

The big thing everyone seems to love is the use of silhouette in the film. Hell, it was put right front and center in the trailers, so you knew that the filmmakers loved it too. They looked great and they worked great. The very first scene in the film has Bond walking down a shadowy, dark hallway and having just his eyes exposed to light.

This looks fantastic. Immediately we get a sense of age and maturity from a shot like this. We're looking at a darker Bond, one that's lived through complex missions, one that has been shaped and molded into an efficient, almost emotionless killer. We're looking at a man that gets paid to murder other people. Every step and every slump of his shoulders and every head bob feels calculated and purposeful. He is of one mind, determined to see this through. This also builds suspense for when we actually see Bond. We're hit with questions about motive and setting, but in a good way. The audience is filled with thrilling anticipation until...

Oh my god yes! Money shot.

This remains a visual motif throughout the entire film: The back-lit hero. Which is fine and wonderful and looks great, but that's not the most well done part of the movie. Visually, the most compelling part of the movie is the villainous Silva's (Javier Bardem) introduction.

We don't even meet Silva until quite a bit of the movie has passed us by, which ups the anticipation. In the scene, Bond is bound to a chair awaiting the entrance of this movie's Big Bad. The room is very, very long and has an immense ceiling. Importantly however, it is incredibly well-lit. No shadows, no ominous visual cues or sense of foreboding. With lighting like what they had in the scene, I was kind of expecting a more flippant and goofy villain to get off the elevator, someone like Christopher Walken from A View to a Kill. What I got was so wonderfully different that I almost starting weeping from joy.

The camera looks longways down the room over Bond's shoulder. Immediately, even without any dumb gimmicks, we're put in the chair right with Bond. The audience is bound to that spot much like Daniel Craig in that chair. Way off in the distance at the end of the room, an elevator descends, building more anticipation. We don't know what's going to happen when those doors open, but it feels bad to us. Camera is still in the same spot, no cuts.

The door opens, and out steps Silva. We can't really see him very clearly because he's so far off in the distance, but we can tell it is a blonde fellow in a tan suit. This is the part where other directors would have cut to close ups of the door opening, revealing the bad guy with some flourish of the music. Not this movie. The camera never moves, not even when Silva starts his quite excellent monologue. Instead of moving the camera to show the audience who got off the elevator, Mendes allows Bardem to dictate pacing by keeping the camera stationary and letting him walk right up to Bond. And by right up to Bond, I mean right there, leaning forward, as close as close can be.

The whole sequence takes quite a long time, and it makes the audience fidgety and uncomfortable. We don't need to listen to his monologue to get that he's the bad guy, we already are creeped out by him and we get the sense of his power and dignified ferocity through his almost disinterested saunter up to Bond. He's in control, he's not in any kind of hurry. This scene also mirrors the first scene in the film, Bond's introduction. Whereas Bond was moving with purpose, trying to catch up, Silva's gait is undetermined and casual. Bond is in shadow while Silva is well lit, helping to drive the point home of Bond's ignorance against Silva's enlightenment (see what I did there?). Where Silva knows everything, the only things Bond knows are given to him through MI6 and M, which sets up the entire conflict for the next two-thirds of the movie-- WOAH DID I JUST SAY THAT OUT LOUD?

See? This is the kind of thing that was done superbly well. This is quite unique and should be a lesson to other filmmakers. But what everyone is taking from this is "SILHOUETTE EQUALS ARTISTIC CRED BLARG" and that is completely missing the point. Don't doubt that in the next few years we're going to see more action movies with silhouette because they think it looks cool, not because they're trying to tell us something about the characters. In Skyfall terms that means that movies coming up will look a lot like this:

And significantly less like this:

And the question isn't "Which of these has more artistic value?" because they both are equal in the context of this movie. Both of those shots say something about the character of Bond and you don't need to see the movie to know what it is. This is visual storytelling at its finest, and Skyfall relied a lot on shots like this to tell you about Bond instead of dialogue. The first half of this movie didn't have a whole lot of words out of Daniel Craig, because you can tell what you need to know about him from what you see on screen (imagine that, "Show don't tell" actually showing up in a big budget action movie). The point is, then, that this style is going to start appearing for the wrong reasons. Blue back-lighting is going to start popping up because it looks damn cool, not because it shows you something about the character.

One thing that struck me about Skyfall that I can't quite say if I liked or disliked is how many times I was reminded of other movies. Now, this isn't just film-snobbery coming to the surface, I honestly was sitting back enjoying the film and then was suddenly and inescapably reminded of another movie. After a while it started taking me out of the action, but what truly amazed me was how many different kinds of movies I was reminded of. And before you start saying that it wasn't the director's intention to make me think of these movies I have to point out that everything that you see in a movie is intentional. Certainly there are mistakes and things, but everything in a movie is for a purpose, and I can't figure out what all these allusions are meant to do.

For example, there's this:

Which reminds me of this:

And this:

I mean, hell, that prison cell is already stylistically like the ones they used to imprison Magneto in X2: X-Men United and the one that imprisoned Loki in The Avengers. Now, I get that these were all similar situations, but what the hell am I supposed to think of this? I still haven't decided. Perhaps I need a few more viewings.

And this isn't the only spot in the film either. The pre-title sequence harkens to movies that have come out just this year, Argo and Taken 2, same chase through the same location in Istanbul. During the titles, we get shots of men falling (get it? Sky-FALL? DO YOU GET IT?), and later we get this:

Which looks suspiciously like this:

 And this:

Now, analyzing what Skyfall has to do with the title sequence from Mad Men and Saul Bass' brilliant poster for Vertigo isn't the point of this, but I'm just trying to make you see how jarring that was for me to look at. If I sat down and counted up all the other movies I was made to think of whilst watching Skyfall I can safely bet that I'd be over fifty. I could probably get close to the century mark if I looked hard enough. I mean, during the middle of this movie I was made to think of Carlito's Way, Die Hard: With A Vengence, Octopussy, Mission Impossible, and U.S. Marshals all in the span of about four minutes. That's pretty jarring. I mean, god damn it the falling wasn't even the only thing that made me think of Vertigo. When Bond meets Q for the first time, sitting in the museum? Yep. That entire scene. Now, I feel like I need to go back and watch the movie again because of everything I missed while I was thinking of Blade Runner and The Maltese Falcon and The Bourne Identity and Apocalypse Now and Raiders of the Lost Ark. This isn't to say that it ruined my movie experience. Far from it. I love it when directors pay homage to their favorite films. But it got to the point where during the middle of the second act I honestly couldn't stop thinking of shots from other movies I was reminded of. Maybe after I get Skyfall on DVD I'll do a more in depth analysis of this, but for now this is just one of my biggest complaints about the movie.

Now, there were some specific things I loved that I want to talk about for a bit.

I'm a pretty big fan of the character M in general, and I think Dame Judi Dench has done an incredible job (hell I even wrote collegiate papers about that) so I was incredibly happy that the Bond girl for this movie was her. You can argue that it was one of the other women, but they're very minor characters which leaves only M. You could even argue that this isn't a Bond movie at all, but more of the story of M and her relationship with her agents and her agency. At the end of the second act there's a scene where M is in a hearing in front of the Prime Minister and other official types. This is one of my most favorite scenes in the film because she knows she's in danger and refuses to leave because she's accepting a tongue lashing from her superiors. Of course, violence erupts and the focus seems to shift back to Bond, but the main plot is very much about her and her choices. I thought it was a wonderful story move and Dench shoulders the burden of carrying the plot wonderfully.

On the other side of M is Silva. Everybody knew Javier Bardem was an excellent actor, and he does a wonderful job here. My problem with his character were some style choices made by people that weren't him, namely the writers. In his first scene, there's quite a bit of innuendo between him and Bond which I enjoyed considerably. And its not just him, Bond goes back and forth with him, implying that he's either bisexual or joking about being bisexual, which is an idea I love. Bond has been a man whore for fifty years, why wouldn't he be interested in men too? Many of the villains he has faced in the past were implied homosexuals (which is something I had a bit of an issue with), why can't he be bi? Now, the problem with Silva was that while his character started out wonderful and creepy and villainous, somewhere in there he switched from being scary because he was this powerful bad guy to being scary because he was gay with (as a friend of mine put it) "mommy issues". That didn't ruin the character for me, but it's an old trope that didn't feel like it belonged in this movie. Everything else was so progressive about how this film was made, why rely on "Gay man wants to get into all the straight men's pants"?

Silva felt like a melting pot of at least a dozen other villains, with a Javier Bardem flair. This is not a bad thing. The most striking similarities were with the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight Trilogy and the villains associated with that. He was equal parts Ra's al Ghul, The Joker, and Bane, with bits of Norman Bates and Hannibal Lector and Lt. Col. Kilgore from Apocalypse Now and Dr. Frankenstein from Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed thrown in. It was actually wonderful to see. I guess now, in the context of the Norman Bates comparison, "mommy issues" fits rather well, doesn't it?

Also delivering a great performance was Ralph Fiennes (remember to say his name correctly), who had a small but significantly enjoyable role as Gareth Mallory, who was M's boss. His subtle greatness is what you expect from a veteran actor like Fiennes and I am happy to say he's sticking around to do more Bond movies. On a related note, its nice to see him in a big budget movie with a nose.

Which leads us to Bond himself.

Bond in this movie is frequently referred to as "too old" and has lost his touch. This is hilarious to me, considering all of the Roger Moore Bond movies. However, Daniel Craig pulls this off very well. He has the air that he's lived through every Bond adventure starting with Dr. No through this movie. He seems to be more like his character from Girl With The Dragon Tattoo than the Bond I remember from Casino Royale, and this is a character trait I like. Instead of being brash and bull-headed, he has become more deliberate and efficient. There's many allusions to him being broken in this movie, and Craig does pull that off very well but (shockingly) it was the camera that did most of the story telling in this regard. Remember I said Bond doesn't speak very much in the first parts of this movie? Well, we get shown that he's broken and hurting through his tests by him grabbing his shoulder (his right shoulder, mind you. Someone could probably write a whole paper about just that) and having his broken-down hero moments. It leads to some great moments where Bond fails (yes, FAILS) to solve problems in the right way. He lets people die because he's not fast enough and good enough. This is one of the first movies where I've seen Bond do that. Most of the deaths in Bond movies are through no fault of his own, but in this one there were three significant deaths that Bond could have prevented but was incapable. These appear to live with him through the rest of the film, especially driving him through a harrowing and incredible trans-London foot chase and subsequent shootout.

The thing I love most about these recent Daniel Craig Bond movies is that through the films we watch him grow. At the end of Goldfinger, Sean Connery was very much the same Bond as when he started. Same with Roger Moore in any of his films and Pierce Brosnan in his. George Lazenby grew throughout On Her Majesty's Secret Service and so did Timothy Dalton in License to Kill, but at the end of every Craig movie, Bond is a significantly different character than when he started. Skyfall is no exception, and his character growth is compelling and wonderful to watch.

The largest problem with this movie's Bond is how it ended up. Instead of having Bond be the central character and have the movies revolve around his trials and growth as a person, the next Bond movies have been set up to be more like the old Bond movies, where Bond is given a mission at the start and he sees it through, boom end-o'-story. I prefer the storytelling in Skyfall and Casino Royale and License to Kill, I feel that it adds personal investment into the character. The other movies just seemed to leave him where we found him, which I was never too happy with. I like my characters to grow and change which Bond rarely does. So this becomes a move in the wrong direction to me.

Also, Craig was made to look incredibly cool in this movie. Such as here in my favorite Bond picture of all time:

Skyfall was an incredibly enjoyable experience for me and I plan on going to see it again this next weekend. I will see this movie a hundred times or more I believe. Where does it rank on the Bond Rankings List? I don't know. Not "Best Ever" as many other people have been saying, but definitely somewhere around Goldeneye. It was probably my third or fourth favorite Bond movie, and that's saying a lot. Everything seemed to work and mesh really well together and my complaints are hardly complaints at all. I hope I live long enough to see fifty more years of movies like this. Long live Bond.

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