More or less Spoiler Free

Someone once described James Bond films as pantomime. The audience already know the story and the characters. They even have some idea of what the set pieces will be and even a good chunk of the dialogue. Instead of looking for originality, they seek familiarity and the producers must be careful to balance any departures from tradition with sops to it.

Skyfall has the luxury of being released in the fiftieth anniversary year of the first canonical Bond film. As such, it has a little more freedom than most outings to directly reference the past. Expect shaken vodka martinis drunk in casino bars, Aston Martins, tuxedos and exploding pens. Some might feel this is slightly over-done, a touch too obvious, but the presence of the franchise paraphernalia allows Skyfall to depart from the usual formula and offer up a darker, more intimate story that still takes place very much within the familiar Bond universe.

Skyfall follows the traditions of recent action movies by filling in the usually blank background of its universe. MI6 is represented not as an International Rescue-cum-Justice League organisation but as a harangued government department that must justify its existence. M is not an anonymous benign overseer, but a pragmatic senior civil servant engaged in crisis management. Most importantly, Bond is not an omniscient superman, but an experienced and damaged field operative approaching the end of his career. Of course, this should not be overstated, Skyfall owes more to Spooks than the Sandbaggers. Nevertheless it is a film where despite the usual explosions, rooftop chases, assassinations and considerable damage to property, there is a definite feeling that someone somewhere is doing the paperwork and managing the insurance claims.

The film focuses on Bond’s relationships with the fixed points and certainties in his life: MI6, England, M and alcohol. Sex, being transient in Bond’s world, barely features. Yes, there are two Bond girls and no, he does not spend the film in a state of chastity, but except in the literal sense, there really is not very much in the way of steamy love scenes. Furthermore, Skyfall is a fairly poor showcase for Bond’s ability to save a damsel in distress, at one stage he appears genuinely uninterested in the fate of the latest femme fatale, despite her unusually tragic backstory. Even where the film’s antagonist is concerned, Bond chases him across the globe because his duty to M demands it, not because of any personal antipathy. Even during the mandatory evil-plan explanation, he barely reacts.

Daniel Craig plays Bond as distracted and frustrated with his apparently erratic abilities. He does not quite have the sure and certain swagger that has hitherto been his trademark. Where Connery or Moore would have taken certain reptilian encounters in their stride, Craig effects surprise, even disbelief at the turn of events, albeit using them to his advantage. Still, he does his duty and it becomes clear over the course of the film that duty to England and to M are really the only things this Bond has to live for. The same is shown to be true of the other characters; when their duty is unclear and stress takes its toll, alcohol appears very much as a crutch, neither M nor Bond nor even Q ever miss the opportunity to drown their sorrows.

This is not to say that the film is bleak and humourless. In fact, it is one of the funnier Bond films. The absurdities of Bond’s world are highlighted and played with, and the dialogue is wry, snappy and except for a few slightly clunky exposition dumps, unforced. All the characters get some one-liners and they are delivered with a sense of relish. There is however a slightly touching moment of humanity when, after dispatching a villain, Bond comes up with some suitable last words, but appears so pleased with his quick thinking that he nearly fluffs the delivery. In addition, despite the attempts at a slightly more realistic world, Skyfall features Daniel Craig’s first truly grotesque Bond Villain, lovingly played by Javier Bardem.

To say more about the film would spoil much of the impact, and I will leave spoilery reviews and discussions of the specifics to other reviewers. As a whole, Skyfall is good entertainment and is a little deeper than some previous offerings. However, it should not be watched too critically; it is still a Bond film and there are plot holes you could drive a T-54 Battle Tank through. It is a film to watch in a reasonably full cinema with a lively audience and ideally one or two drinks.

Skyfall is the 23rd Bond Film and was released in the UK on 26 October 2012 and 6 November 2012 in the US

James Bond – Daniel Craig
Raul Silva – Javier Bardem
Eve - Naomie Harris
Sévérine - Bérénice Marlohe
M – Judi Dench
Q - Ben Whishaw

Disclaimer: I have a rather large anti-Bond bias to begin with. Expect anything. (also, some moderate-to-heavy spoilers.)

Andrew above believes that Skyfall "should not be watched too critically". Being cursed with the dreaded critical and analytical genes that make up "mathematics student", I don't have much choice in the matter. Nevertheless, I have seen it and I shall review it. In fact, I have the (dis?)pleasure of coming into this with fresh eyes - as someone who is neither a fanboy nor someone with a passing interest in the franchise. I have seen it as a standalone film - a rarity after fifty years of "Bond. James Bond." I'll say straight away, for those of you disinterested in my biased viewpoint, that as a stand alone film it's not great, but Bond fans will enjoy it. Guaranteed.

First and foremost, it was interesting seeing the differing views of the people coming out of the cinema, which I can categorise into two rough groups: those that love the 007 franchise and all its glory, and me. Every single one of us watched as James Bond jumped headfirst into his latest mission: retrieve a stolen hard disk and do whatever the hell you like to the guy carrying it. Unfortunately the mission goes awry early on, and Bond has to deal with the aftermath of this failure by doing what Bond does best. Yes? Nearly. In fact, that was a heavily recurring theme in the film - the old ways are the best ways. This return to older, more familiar Bond elements can be summed up with two key trope-lampshading lines from the dialogue: first, "What were you expecting? An exploding pen? We don't do that stuff any more," and second, "Is there anything left of the old 007?"

To answer the first one: Yes. I was expecting exploding pens, or at least some other kind of deus ex machina that was (by definition) over-the-top and hilarious to see the results of. Isn't that what Bond is all about? Poking fun at that idea, among others? Maybe. But Skyfall isn't. Skyfall seems like it's more about poking fun at its predecessors than anything else (but obviously not limited to the Daniel Craig movies). And yes, there is a lot left of the old 007, but it does seem very outdated. The Aston Martin, long since replaced, became a plot point as opposed to a Macguffin (read: crime against my sensibilities). "Eve Moneypenny" jumped into the fray, but to be honest, it wasn't a Pussy Galore moment. Other minor bits and pieces such as 007's martini were blended in with all the subtlety of a brick being launched by a catapult that also happens to play death metal music turned all the way up to eleven whenever the big red "Launch" button is pressed. Face it - the Bond creators have tried too hard to rejuvenate the old Bond, and drawn too much attention to it. A few passing references might've worked.

On the other hand, I noted that the movie was quite good at slightly-more-subtly juxtaposing the old and the new in a couple of other ways. The "new", fancy MI6 headquarters is blown up early in the film and a relocation to WWII-era tunnels is necessitated. A lot of the first maybe two-thirds of the movie is about stealing back a hard drive with a list of Agents on it, then frantically trying to trace it, only to have its encryption cracked and the agency toyed with thereafter; in the final third, electronics disappear completely and the movie takes a Macgyver-like twist when Bond, M and Kincaid are left alone in the freezing Scottish countryside with little more than hunting rifles and dynamite. (On that note: I get a little narky when people use the words "hack" and "virus" erroneously. Good to see that Skyfall avoided that pitfall. Ahem.)

Skyfall seemed also to pride itself on Chekhov's gun moments. In fact, I lost count - probably upwards of a dozen. As a result, the ending was made almost predictable and the rest of the movie seemed drawn-out1. I say "almost" predictable since the remarkably unpredictable Pyrrhic victory at the end was fairly well-executed. Not amazingly, but fairly well. Of course, I'm told Pyrrhic victories are fairly common these days, and especially for Bond. Other Bond classics were seen in spades - and drawn-out as such. Gratuitous explosions? Dime-a-dozen. Comedy? Well, no, but there were funny bits. M being totally unshaken by everything to the point of near insanity? Done, done, and done. ...nearly.

Nearly. There was one moment during the film where M cracked. I have to make the note that Judi Dench's acting was quite amazing. In fact, for the most part, the acting was impressive. I've heard a lot about how "X Bond actor was better than Y Bond actor" and so on, but I tend to ignore it all and say Daniel Craig slots himself right into the role quite well, particularly for Skyfall. The cinematography and visual effects were quite good, too. I admit, I really want to go swimming in that rooftop pool after seeing the film.

A few other minor points to add: "Skyfall" does not sound like an old house, it sounds like a song title - maybe some epic trance track. The film's length, at two and a half hours, was a bit too long, and Silva's dogged pursuit of M was too dogged by the end. We don't see Q after his heroic disobeying-of-authority and we never learn what happens to him, if anything. As with other Bond films, plot holes abound and Silva was always far too far ahead of MI6. Finally, a train car in the Tube was labelled "96069", and if this wasn't deliberate, then it sure as hell deserved to be.

My anti-Bond bias puts the film at 3/10, but I'm better than that. I see the merits of it, and officially give it 5/10. Good acting, visuals and chuckles counteract the reminiscing, surrealism and length to make it tolerable for me to watch... once.

1 Having said that, I don't know if this was the creators' fault or merely if TVtropes has ruined my life.

Alert: this is a Teleny review. Spoilers abound. Also rampant snarkiness.

My soulmate, Carmen, has never been a James Bond fan. Ever. John Drake and The Avengers are preferable, in his eyes, to the Playboy Man with License to Kill. Maybe because he's bi, and back in the 60's and 70's, prime Bond years, sex for him was kind of well, different than simply lusting after hot chicks, and he's never had a car, he's always preferred the tradecraft aspects of the spy genre. So he's always liked John Drake/Number Six, because it was mostly about the mind games, and the Avengers because it was about traditional Britain, campy humor and a truly Shakesperian heroine.

I, on my part, have always held Bond in a kind of fascinated horror: not as potentially lethal but fundamentally compassionate as Paul Linebarger, not as cheekily cosmopolitan as Blackford Oakes, not as gently enigmatic and can-do as Tony Mendez, the Bond of the books always seemed to be in heavy need of either a hug or a hotfoot. Come on, I keep thinking, as he dryly sneers at everything from postwar America to rural Asia to anything about a country that was then Communist: all right, this isn't London, but can't you just relax and quit whining for one minute? You're supposed to be able to deal with all kinds of cultures and people, why is it that you look like you're going to come unglued or something if you can't hear MUZAK in the background, don't have some Continental food to eat or aren't walking on wall-to-wall carpeting? (Or, for that matter, a plush Oriental, getting orders from his betters…) When he's not being cranky, he's trying to approximate adult seriousness by drinking and moping. Little wonder my personal  teenaged Bond fantasies were of slipping some LSD in his coffee and packing him off to live on a commune…preferably that guest farm in New York State that's run by a feminist sisterhood that caters to vacationing elderly rockers and poets lecturing at Bard. True to my New Englander roots, I figured one summer of herb tea, discussing progressive politics and helping with gardening in a house full of women would probably have mellowed him out enough to be able to drop spying and take up a job teaching Foreign Relations at a small liberal arts college.

You know, do some actual good in life.

    Little wonder, then, that my favorite 60's spies on screen or in print were the  slightly countercultural ones: Our Man Flynt (pot, fone phreaking and James Coburn playing himself), Our Man from C.A.M.P. (bon vivant, gearhead, pre-Stonewall gay guy), The Baroness (sex, haute couture, and Orson Welles playing Aleister Crowley), The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (transatlantic charmer and sexy Russian geek team), and the no-spies-at-all-but-isn't-it-kind-of-a-Bond? movie Performance (to-die-for townhouse, Mick Jagger, Anita, sex, drugs, head games, and a cameo by a frisky eel). Now and then, I like a good "spy procedural", like Argo, or John Le Carre.

You can imagine that new James Bond films are greeted in our small circle with something like a giant "meh". This time, however, "Skyfall" was a must-see. The bombshell? Bond goes gay. Or gets seduced by a guy. Or….well, something.

The villain, Raoul Silva (I keep pronouncing it in Latin, like Silwa) is tall, with moppy blonde hair, and something wrong with his mouth (more about this later) which gives his Ricardo Montalban-like accent a hint of a lisp (which is how real Spanish people talk, but we're not carping). He's computer-savvy, not bad-looking in a perverse sort of way, good with a gun, and was M's (played by the regal Judi Dench) favorite schoolboy, until he got abandoned during an op in China, which led to his arrest and torture. He's not going to take over the world, he's just pissed off, so he blows up M.I.6., leaks a lot of files and wreaks havoc with the Internet, about the same time as M has to justify their existence to a governmental subcommittee. (In other words, one V mask short of being the keynote speaker at the next Chaos Communication Camp.)

On the good guys side, the new Q looks like a merger of Bryce from Max Headroom and Alan Turing, but uses a product placement crappy laptop. He hands Bond some paltry-looking gadgets, nothing interesting, and it's off to the Orient for our boy...

     There's an over-the-top Chinese casino in Macao that makes me almost wish I liked gambling, and a suitably slinky Bond Girl, Severine (nice choice of name, depending on what book you like it either means "cruelty" or "doormat"), former sex slave of Silwa, with whom he predictably makes out in the shower, steamily...She tells him her sad life and begs Bond to kill Silwa, but Bond looks bored at having to actually be nice, and listen to her, and I, a woman, don't feel anything at all.

     And then, of course, Bond gets captured (on Hashima Island, no less) and…cue the monologue and/or torture…

     The "I'm going to kill you, but not until I tell you how badass I am" talk somewhat rambles, having something to do with his grandmom teaching him about turning rats cannibalistic as a method of pest control. Since I spell "mousetrap" C-A-T, and have read about the Rat City experiment (which is kind of Hashima-related), I know I'm supposed to be squirming, but I kind of doubt rats actually work that way.

     And then, Silwa sits down, and gently, ever so gently, unbuttons Bond's shirt…

     Forget Bond and Severine, right now, I'm a puddle. Carmen is holding my hand in a vice grip. Everyone else is in nervous laughter mode…
     Silwa is stroking his chest and neck…delicately, knowingly, with that look of intense concentration someone has when they're seriously trying to get a rise out of someone, and not a little turned on themselves…"How you're trying to remember your training now...what is the regulation for this? ....There's a first time for everything…" He gently parts his thighs, and begins to stroke them…
     "What makes you think this is the first time?" says Bond, just as tightassed as ever.
    Carmen goes into jaw-drop and shiver. Yow!  He admits it! Bond's Bi! Far freaking out! Yessss! We have a wiener!  Welcome to the 21st Century! There is a God!

On screen Silwa looks pissed he got all his good stroking stepped on, and tries to play with his head some other way.

     The rest of the movie is kind of dull in comparison. Severine dies, somewhat conveniently. Silwa takes the plate out of his mouth, claiming it was cyanide poisoning that done it (huh?), and the results would stop a clock. Really, his cheeks deflate and everything -- don't they have some non-removable treatment for that? Bond blows up a poor innocent Victorian hunting lodge that they insist is a lot older, then hustles everyone (through the "priest hole", natch) to a chapel. Silwa tries to kill Judi Dench and himself with the same bullet (like that's going to work...Silwa! I'm disappointed in you!), but she dies of a bleed out from a bullet hole from someone else, Albert Finney...or was it Bond? throws a knife in Silva's back, but by then I'm not really keeping score, cause everyone's getting blown up but Our Boy.

     Anyway, the New M is going to be a man, and everyone heaves a deep sigh of relief. Rule Britannia! Patriarchy restored! God save the...well anyway...



     Now, about the stroking bit.

     Part of the whole James Bond package is that, even though the franchise has updated certain parts of it -- the product placements, the gadgetry, the efforts, at times somewhat awkward, to be hip -- mostly the idea is that he's living out a man's mid-life crisis fantasy. Fast cars, love 'em and leave 'em women, violence without getting hurt (too much), luxury living in hotels and First Class air travel, an unlimited expense account and being able to get away with not only murder but being a totally bigoted prick...all the things that domesticated office-bound wage slaves dream of when they're dealing with accounts receivable to try to pay off their kid's braces.
     As a counterpoint, he's always been prey to the Fate Worse Than Death: Le Chiffre hitting his balls with a tennis racket, the laser beam that's going to bisect him crotch first, someone threatening to rape the Bond Girl, every way of "unmanning" him. As many times as he gets benched, beat up, or discouraged, he's not going to ever find Ms. Right, settle down, or buy lawn food -- no! no! they'll never take my manhood alive!

Since it's both "foreign", and an attack on the Unstoppable Power Penis, gayness has always been a rough proposition here -- on one hand you have Rosa Khlebb, the unfsckable bulldagger from Hell, and the pair of guys from Diamonds are Forever, walking into the sunset together, representing the dark side of all this obsessive manliness. On the other hand, you have the Goldfinger girl, who's a lesbian who gets seduced by the Magic Cock of Bond.  Since Silva is male, and Bond's fscking him would serve no purpose, he's clearly in the Creepy Gay guy category, and destined to die, which is a shame, since Silva is arguably sexier than Bond, and...a geeky pirate paradise on Hashima,the Holy Grail of urban explorers, with its broken-toy buildings and rooftop farms, just six miles off Nagasaki, erm, "Macao"? How.Awesome.Is.That? I could write whole volumes about how Silva could have put together, not a paramilitary camp full of mooks, but a thriving community, with women and children, and gotten it billed as an experiment in urban reclamation...sigh.

     What precedes all this stroking is a thorough debunking of his rosy view of his prior reinstatement exam, and a laundry list of how M has failed him: he failed both marksmanship and the physical, is addicted to "pills" (probably benzodiazepine) and alcohol and has strong childhood trauma problems. M sent him off, not back to active duty, but to get killed, and he'd already been shot. It's not so much a seduction, as a stage in breaking him... When this fails to work, he tries getting him to shoot a shot glass off Severine's head, which doesn't pan out either, since Bond refuses, and Silva shoots her, I guess because he forgot to threaten to do so earlier. (Looks like her name really did mean "Doormat", since neither one of them looks particularly sorry about it.) Her death might even be faked.

     Bond's response can be read therefore as "I'm straight, I'm straight, I'm so straight, even if I have gay sex I'm still straight.", so there, while it remains that real sensuality (which is supposed to be the perogative of straights, vs. the zipless fscks of traditional gays) remains outside his grasp. Sorry guys, it looks like there won't be any Bond yaoi anytime soon.

I'm sooo seriously going to have to look up "Our man from C.A.M.P."....Now there was one cool guy...

Skyfall


Sudden big wet flakes
Skyfull
Cats stare at window motion
"Come sweet cats!"
Shouts my 15 year old
Letting them out
To share the joy snow
"It's snowing, it's snowing."
Sings my 10 year old
"How could you possibly be mad?
It's snowing!"

3/26/2011

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