Thursday, November 15, 2012

Movie Review - Skyfall

Genre: Action
Premise: When a former MI:6 agent-turned-hacker starts hunting James Bond's boss, M, Bond will have to turn back the sands of time to save her, as well as himself.
About: Bond is back!  And in an unconventional choice, the director of American Beauty, Sam Mendes, is at the helm.  Turns out all it took was a chance encounter with Daniel Craig at a party and for Craig to ask, "Fancy doing the next Bond?" and that was it - Mendes was in.  That's the secret to success in this industry.  It's not about spending millions of hours practicing your craft.  It's about practicing how to get Daniel Craig to ask you if you'd fancy doing the next Bond.  Don't you guys know this? -- Skyfall has already made 2.5 trillion dollars at the box office and, from my understanding, they're going to use the profits to build a life-size diamond replica of the abandoned island featured in the movie which they will name "Diamonada Island."
Writers: Neal Purvis & Robert Wade and John Logan (based on characters created by Ian Fleming).


"James Boring."

Oh calm down.  I'm just kidddd-ing.  Okay, so I'm only half-kidding.  I mean let's be real - Daniel Craig doesn't exactly exude personality. And extended periods of his huffy brooding stares can make a man lose faith in the entertainment spaceship.  I know we've graduated from the wise-cracking winking-at-the-audience Bonds of the past, but it wouldn't hurt to loosen up a little bit, would it?  It's hard to identify and care for a hero who's sooooo guarded.

With that said, this had to be one of the wackier Bond films I've ever seen.  In fact, I was just telling someone, "That didn't feel like a Bond film at all."  Yet I was mostly entertained.  And I say "mostly" with reservations because there were long stretches of this script where not much happened.  Most of the good stuff came from the bad guy, played by Javier Bardem.  Yeah, Bardem's played versions of this character before.  But he's such a blast to watch that you went along with it anyway.

Although here's the thing with Bardem's character.  Even though he ignited the film, he kind of tainted it also.  I don't know what movie he thought he was in, but it definitely wasn't the one I'd been watching for the previous hour.  Since the dawn of Daniel Craig Bond, the Bond character is more serious, the Bond tone is more serious, and the Bond villains are more serious.  So to see Bardem play this creepy broad 80s Bond villain, I thought I'd been slipped whatever drug Mendes was on when he conceived of that opening title sequence.

And that wasn't the only time I confused Skyfall for an acid trip.  Mendes brought a more "artsy" vibe to the series, and decided to turn Bond into poetic opera as opposed to hard core action.  The Shanghi high-rise assassination sequence was a personal fave, with all the neon lights dancing along the endless panes of glass.  I'm not sure why Bond sat there and watched a man assassinate his target before doing anything - but why should that matter when there's an 80 foot digital jellyfish swimming around behind him???

Screenplay-wise, I'm not sure what to make of Skyfall.  The pacing never felt quite right, and instead of past Bond films where a writer would solve a problem with an over-the-top action scene, Mendes solves his problems with slow deliberate talky scenes.  I mean yeah, it's sexy watching a Bond girl shave Bond in a backlit apartment terrace in some strange beautiful country, but do we really need that scene?  Doesn't it bring the movie to a screeching halt?  (note: I've been told by Bond-heads that this woman's later name-reveal is a big deal - still, you could've done a lot more with her than this scene) There were numerous moments like this, where I said, "Let's see some action!  Let's see some fun!  This is Bond!"  When the annoying little douchey youngster dude tells Bond that they don't do exploding pens anymore, I was like, "WHY NOT???"  When I was a kid watching Bond films, I liked those exploding pens!  Are you telling me now we're too good for exploding pens??  Humph.

Anyway, I'm going off book here, so maybe I should get to the plot.  I'm excited to report that I was able to follow the entire plot of Skyfall!  The reason for my enthusiasm is that I wasn't always clear on the happenings of the last two Bond films, particularly Quantum Of Solace.  At one point I remember thinking Bond's goal was to visit as many countries as he could before the end of the week.  The Amazing Race meets Goldeneye.  Here, they did a much better job of keeping the plot clear, even if they took their precious time between actual plot points.

Skyfall starts out with a brilliant hacker who manages to get his hands on an MI:6 operative's hard drive which happens to be carrying the identities of every major MI:6 agent embedded in terrorist cells around the world.  This playful little programmer decides to start releasing these men's identities on Youtube every week five at a time.  If they don't find him soon, more and more of these superstar agents will die.

Bond, who's been weakened by a mission-gone-bad, probably isn't the one to be put on the job, but finds himself on it anyway because...well because if he wasn't, we wouldn't have a movie and Sam Mendes would have to film a bag blowing in the wind for 120 minutes.  Hmm, come to think of it, Javier Bardem giving the rat monologue to that blowing bag would've been a hell of a scene.

So Bond finally finds this do-badder who turns out to be a former agent, Silva, who's since gone rogue.   But Silva's not really in it for the exposing of agents, like we initially thought.  That was just a ploy to get their attention.  What he really wants to do is kill Bond's boss, M, for leaving him to die in the field and forcing him to get some serious dental work afterwards that MI:6 did NOT cover.

With Bond and M outmatched in the modern world due to Silva's technological superiority, Bond makes the call to go "back in time" to his childhood foster home where he and M will wait out Silva and force him to take them down without a single computer chip or text message.

So, what can we learn from the screenwriting here?  Well, the most pronounced aspect of the screenplay was the focus on theme.  The writers really pushed the "Everybody gets old" stuff, and while I found it admirable that theme took such prominence in a Bond screenplay, I'm not sure I agreed with the theme they chose to explore.  Bond getting old?  Bond is eternal.  The guy's had, what, 20 movies?  He's like the Simpsons or South Park.  He will never age!  So I just found it to be a curious choice.  In addition to that, they pushed the theme way too hard in the opening act (every other scene was about Bond getting older) and it added even more darkness to a franchise that already had its feet firmly planted in darkness.

You'll notice, however, that the script really started to pick up upon the arrival of Silva, and not just because Javier Bardem is a great actor, but because now we had a face to the villain.  Until that point, the characters spent most of their time having quiet conversations in big rooms about "who could this mysterious person be?"  It got tiresome and the writers didn't move that part of the story along nearly fast enough (see above - chick shaving James Bond's face).

But once Silva was in the picture, his goal of killing M FORCED Bond and the agency to work faster.  Gone were talky scenes in rooms, replaced by real honest-to-Goodness action.  That's what we came to see!  And look, I know you have to use the first half of your script to set up a lot of these second and third act scenes.  The scene where Bond and Silva engage in a game of "who can shoot the glass off the hot girl's head first"  succeeded mostly due to the earlier Bond scene where he struggles during target practice.  But there's ALWAYS a way to move things along faster.  You can combine scenes, cut scenes, accelerate scenes.  I just felt they were taking too much time.

Having said that, I was surprised at my reaction to Bond revisiting his childhood foster home.  The thing about these Bond movies has always been that Bond is a blank slate.  He doesn't have "issues" and "troubled backstory."  He just kicks ass and beds women.  I know they've changed that with the re-boot into "Breaking Bond," but this was the first time where I actually felt some depth to the character.  And I kind of dug it!  For once Bond felt human, and that made me want to root for him more.  He was one of us.

Unfortunately, I don't think that final sequence worked as well as it could've.  If they're giving you 200 million dollars to make a film, your set pieces better be big and they better be unique.  I mean that's the whole point of having that kind of money - you can do whatever you want.  Bond using a bulldozer to reattach a train car so he doesn't lose the target?  That's something I hadn't seen before!  A villain inhabiting a deserted city island?  Hadn't seen that either!   People using mirror tricks to shoot the bad guys invading their farm?  I've seen that plenty of times.  I'm not saying it was bad.  It worked for the film.  But this is Bond.  I wanted something more...betterish.

As you can see, this movie perplexed me.  I liked it, it lost me, I liked it, it lost me.  I felt a little bit like that 80 foot jellyfish, which is a good analogy because Bond 23 chose to swim where past Bond films would've run.  And that was sorta cool, if a little confusing.  Skyfall doesn't hold up to my nostalgic memories of the Roger Moore Bond years, but of the three Daniel Craig films, I believe this one to be the best, if only because of its unique unexpected tone.

[ ] what the hell did I just watch?
[ ] wasn't my kind of movie
[x] worth the price of admission
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Don't overstate your theme.  Usually we're talking about writers not having a theme.  But it's almost as bad if you're overstating your theme - if every scene, characters are hammering it home to the audience.  "You're getting old, Bond."  "It might be time to retire."  "It's a young man's game, Bond."  Oh, here comes the super-young handler dude to remind us how old Bond is again!  For theme, you usually wanna go with one scene (sometimes two) that states your theme out loud and then try and subtly weave it into the rest of the film underneath the surface.