Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Skyfall (2012) – Review

Review: Skyfall is a great James Bond adventure, filled with strong characters, nostalgic throwbacks and great franchise moments. The film is about a washed-up Bond, severely injured on his last assignment and maybe his heart is just not in it anymore. However, he is called back into action when a man named Silva personally attacks MI6, and M specifically. His loyalty to M is tested both because of her connection to Silva and the role she played in his last assignment.

The Bond franchise has somewhat changed in its fifty years and twenty-three films, but the general idea of what a good Bond film should be has stayed mostly the same: Bond is a cold-blooded spy, who has a way with the ladies and seemingly always gets his man (target). Bond films thusly should be cool, with attractive women, stylish cars and neat gadgets, and action packed – above all very entertaining. Bond films often have huge action set pieces, multiple international locations and impressive sets (innovated and imagined by the great Ken Adam).

With Casino Royale, the franchise was rebooted to reflect a more modern and grittier more realistic Bond (doing away with the pageantry and many of the characters, like Q and Moneypenny; also gone were the gadgets, over-the-top super villains and their lairs, and maybe even some of Bond’s swagger). The film presented Bond as not being completely comfortable in his role (not exactly fitting the lifestyle or being quite as cold-blooded – i.e. being affected by the death of people around him).

Sam Mendes’s Skyfall keeps the same Bond from Casino Royale (and its follow-up) but feels much more like a classic Bond film. It is chock-full of references and homages to past Bond films (especially those in the Sean Connery era). The film even brings back many of the staples of the franchise. Yet, it is again a very personal story (like its two predecessors). Thus, Mendes has created a hybrid of sorts: a more emotionally available Bond that the audience can connect with on a more personal level (rather than merely just being a cool action hero) mixed with the classic conventions that make the series great (especially for its fans). It works very well.

Narratively, the film takes a while to get going. As with the other films in the franchise, Skyfall opens with a big action set piece prologue. However, Mendes wants to also include a lot of character information into this sequence, but without losing all the action. In Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, the openings also had action and character information (which was told particularly efficiently in the former), but in Skyfall the scene just seems to go on too long. The audience is told that Bond does not agree with M’s position on putting the mission ahead of her people and that maybe he is on the back nine of his career (seemingly having lost a step). The best opening sequences have showcased the character in sort of a cinematic vignette – the audience gets a sense of the character (or actor’s style playing Bond) and sees him do something exciting to draw them in and hook them in an efficient manner. With the last two films, these scenes have just felt too long. The audience does not know the stakes (especially in this film – at least with Quantum of Solace it starts right where Casino Royale ends) and thus is not invested (at least more than superficially, as they root for Bond because he is Bond and they know the character going in), leaving the opening to feel boring (even if the action is impressive) because it goes on too long. This is a classic case in modern action films of quantity over quality. This opening could have been much more effective if told more economically. There is plenty of time later in the narrative for showy action. Plus, not only is the scene too long, but then it goes right into the title sequence (dragging out the film even longer before the audience really gets into the story).

However, even with all that said, once Mendes gets into the characters and Bond on his mission, the film becomes quite good. Mendes’s skill as a filmmaker is in getting wonderful performances from his actors and creating dynamic scenes. Many of the most electric moments in this film come from scenes in which two characters are just talking. Bond’s conversation with Severine in the casino or his first meeting with Silva are by far more engaging and thrilling than any action sequence in this film. This is not a knock against the action set pieces. For the most part, they are great. This is more in admiration for what Mendes has brought to the film (and franchise). His characters are utterly compelling and well-drawn (which is usually not the case in action films). Silva is among the best villains in the series as a result of the care taken with his character and the performance Mendes garnered. Story-wise, he is really no different than any other psychotic that Bond is sent after. Silva is truly frightening. It is the approach Mendes takes, treating him as a full character, that makes him great, and really what makes the film great.

The dramatic journeys for the film’s main characters have an emotional resonance to them. M seeks redemption. Silva needs resolution in his twisted relationship with M, who is a mother figure to him (and also to Bond in many ways). And for Bond, he must prove that he not only wants to but also physically can remain a 00-agent, while also working through his own issues with M. The film is so effective, because the audience sees what the characters motivations are and gets to know them on a deeper level (and thereby care about them). More so than other Bond films, the audience has an emotional stake in the characters, which is more effective than the grandest of action set pieces.

Going into the film with Mendes at the helm, there may have been some concern about whether or not he could direct an entertaining action film (due to no prior experience on this scale). The action set pieces are mostly very good (not the best in the franchise, but not the worst). Again, the prologue felt too long and logistically/strategically the finale seemed poorly planned for a top agent (for example: why did Bond not bring more weapons or call for backup on the down-low? – maybe there was not time, even if there seemed to be, and maybe he did not trust anyone; it just felt needlessly reckless). It also has sort of a Straw Dogs/Home Alone vibe to it, which feels odd for a James Bond film. However, the finale works very well from a character and narrative standpoint (which is more important). However, again, the action scenes are really secondary, even in an action film (assuming the film also wants to be actually good), to the characters and Mendes does fantastic work with them.

Skyfall bridges the franchise from (the reboot) Casino Royale (which is Bond’s first mission) to something more along the lines for the classic Bond adventures fans are used to (reestablishing many of the series institutions), while still keeping the character more emotionally accessible to audience. It is among the best in the series.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Sam Mendes’s James Bond film feels like an aesthetically and dramatically more impressive film than most in the franchise. As expressed multiple times in the review above, he does a brilliant job with the characters and performances, but he also gives the film a very dramatically weighty tone. There is a real sense of peril for the characters (and thereby the audience). This is not just a lightweight fun action romp. The drama is powerful and the tension gripping. Probably unlike any Bond film before, Mendes has made a film where the characters and their moments are more thrilling than the action spectacle.

Thomas Newman’s score combines moments from past Bond scores with his own original work. Many of the pieces have sort of an adventure film vibe to them, while other conform more to the typical Bond-style music. It is different than any other Bond score I can remember, but still works well with the film emphasizing the dramatic moments and action/character beats. Dennis Gassner’s production design fits well with Mendes’s blending of the ‘new’ Bond with the classic Bond (much like Newman’s score). The film still has a very realistic look to it, but many of the sets have a great exaggerated and grandiose feel to them (like the awesome abandoned island, which looks a bit like the city Cobb and Mal created in Inception, but after the dream has collapsed). However, Roger Deakins’s cinematography blows everything else away (probably even overshadowing the film). His work is beautiful and rich (from the sci-fi feel of the action scene in Shanghai and the striking colors of the Macau casino to the ghostly and weary glow of the moor in Scotland). It is easily among the best work I have seen this year (if not the best hands down this year).

The cast is excellent. Albert Finney, Naomie Harris and Ralph Fiennes are all good in small supporting roles, while Ben Whishaw and Berenice Marlohe (her conversation with Bond in Macau is magnetic and fantastic) steal scenes (also in support). Judi Dench is given her biggest and most dramatically compelling role in the series, and does wonderfully with it. She appears more vulnerable in this than any other film, but still with an overcurrent of strength and resolve. Javier Bardem is just brilliantly amazing at playing villains and having a blast with them. His Silva far dwarfs any other in the rebooted Bond franchise (and maybe in the whole series) in terms of bringing to life a character that actually seems like a legitimate threat to Bond. Every scene with Bardem is better because he is in it; he is completely captivating. Daniel Craig is again quite good as James Bond. He has a great physicality to him that makes everything feel more realistic, but he also allows the audience to see chinks in his armor, which gives them an in and lets them relate to him. All in all, the performances in this film are top notch and well above what is to be expected.

Summary & score: Yes, Skyfall is the fun and entertaining James Bond film the fans want (full of pithy wit, cool cars, beautiful women, and great action), but it is also so much more. It has remarkably engaging characters and enticing drama as well. 8/10

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