Nov 12, 2012

Film Review: Skyfall

I've been waiting a long time for this. It's time to review Skyfall!

Full disclosure here: My namesake is very closely tied to the James Bond franchise and my mother and father raised me to love all things Bond, so I may not be the most objective reviewer. So, yes, my real name is PussyGalore, and, yes, I thoroughly enjoyed this movie.

Bond and Q deal with dangerous numbers
Let’s get some plot out of the way first. Basically, a mysterious company steals a list of all of the NATO operatives currently undercover in terrorist cells across the world from MI6. What they plan to do with it in anyone’s guess, but it sets up the action, the betrayal, and the butt-kickery that follows. If you've heard this plot before, it’s because it’s basically the set-up to the first Mission: Impossible movie. However, where the plot goes from the set-up in Istanbul is completely different. I don’t want to spoil any of the plot, since figuring it out is half the fun. Even the title of the movie is mysterious – what exactly is Skyfall? Is it a mission, a person, the feeling one gets while bungee jumping? It could be all manner of things, and the fun and interest is in the journey of
discovery, like on Dora the Explorer.

The director of this, James Bond’s 23rd official outing, is Sam Mendes, who is not really known for directing action films (Jarhead or Road to Perdition would be the closest, though even those are a stretch). He’s proved himself a capable director, albeit one with a dramatic sensibility and a penchant for overly-stylized shots. Those aren't necessarily bad things. I love Tim Burton and Quentin Tarantino, but the same things can be said of them as well. Like them, Mendes is capable of making a great film when paired with the right material, and here he is given a great script and a great cinematographer. With those in hand, he does very well.

One thing that is particularly well-done is the staging and filming of the many fight sequences throughout the film. One of the things that we had a problem with in Quantum of Solace (and action movies in general) is that the camera cuts are done so quickly that it’s hard to tell what’s going on. Presumably this is to increase intensity and to hide stunt work errors or obviousness. However, with the obviously athletic Daniel Craig, it’s really a treat to actually be able to see him in action, with more time spent actually watching the fights unfold. The longer takes give a greater sense of spatial understanding and makes the scenes more enjoyable. There’s a scene in particular, in a high rise in Shanghai, that is absolutely gorgeous. Craig and a would-be assassin square off in a dark room surrounded by glass and windows, the only light coming from the giant jellyfish projected on a building behind them and the occasional gun shots illuminating their faces. I’m not sure how many takes make up the whole scene, but it gels together into such a solid scene that the whole thing feels like one extended take. It doesn't sacrifice cohesion in order to increase intensity.

Of course, all the action scene in the world would mean nothing without strong acting to anchor the film. Daniel Craig is outstanding in this film. While his lined face once seemed anachronistic to his role as a hotshot young agent with a history of going off-book, now he seems in line to play Bond as an agent out of his depth, as a man who is forced to face the fact that the old ways are fading and the new age of technological terrorism is upon him. Helping him understand that is the new Quartermaster (“Q”), played now by Ben Whishaw. I was a big fan of Whishaw in Bright Star and the TV series The Hour, and he is one of the few bright spots in the wackadoodle Cloud Atlas. Here, he's less a foil for Bond as he is a teacher and guide to the new world of computers. There’s also some nice interplay between the two of them as they spar and bicker there way into solving the mystery.

I could write for hours about the brilliant acting in this film. Ralph Fiennes is in fine form as a bureaucrat who might be so much more (he gives a great line reading of “Don’t cock it up”). Javier Bardem is interesting as the villain Silva, a man with serious issues and a seriously bad hairstyle. He's an extremely flamboyant character, in words and deeds, and it pairs well with the dour Bond that Craig has crafted. He loses steam as the film continues, and he's almost to humanly frail to be taken seriously, but some of his scenes pack quite a punch. Bérénice Marlohe as Sévérine plays one of the most affecting Bond girls I've seen in the franchise. She plays fear better than most, and it helps sell the legitimacy of Silva as a match for the death-defying James Bond. Plus, her existence allows Bond to say the line “I like you better without your Berretta,” which sounds pretty sweet with a British accent. 

Judi Dench - She's Better Than You At Everything
Still, it's Judi Dench as M that really steals the show. One element that the Daniel Craig films have understood that the Pierce Brosnan ones didn't is that if you have an actress as amazing as Dench, you had better well use her for more than a few war room discussions. Here, she is on full display, and she’s magnificent. The integration of M into the plot is a long time coming, and it's been interesting to see the writers craft her and Bond's relationship over the last three films. Dench is able to play steel-eyed impenetrability and emotional turmoil with equal vim and vigor. Her speech before the Prime Minister, wherein she quotes Tennyson at length, is one of the strongest moments that I have seen played on screen.

Really, the film is so well-done that there is little to criticize. It can be over-scored at times, and it's still not quite as fun as it should be, but it's got humor, action, brilliant set pieces, and quite a bit of emotional heft. It also pays tribute to the franchise in interesting ways (some obvious, some hidden), incorporates elements from the books that were surprising and well-done, and it sets up quite a nice path for the films that will follow it. It may not be the strongest Bond film ever, but it is fantastic!

Film Grade: 007 out of 007
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