Saturday, March 30, 2013

"50 Years of Bond" Retrospective - #23: Skyfall

Before Skyfall came out, we didn’t know what to expect. We weren’t totally sure what the film was about, either. All we knew was that EON was intending to kick Bond’s 50th off in style. One of the chief indications of this was by hiring Sam Mendes are director. Mendes was known more for character driven dramas like American Beauty and Road to Perdition than he was for action, so there were some who were skeptical of him being chosen. Not me, as I was too busy shouting “INSPIRED DECISION!” Next up, the studio started hiring some of the best technicians in the business, and enlisted some of the best actors currently working such as Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, and Albert Finney. Naturally, we all got excited, but I don’t think any of us were ready for how much this would change the way we look at the series.

Throughout this retrospective, you’ve probably noticed me bring up Goldfinger a lot, usually in the case of comparison. So, with how much I hold the other films up to its standards, you might assume it was my favorite. As a matter of fact, it’s not. For that honor is held by Skyfall, which is just about the most perfect blending of everything I already love about Bond, and every new road I wanted it to go down. Thrilling, rich in character, suspenseful, funny, superbly acted, terrifically directed, and flawlessly produced, Skyfall is not only a fantastic James Bond film. It’s simply a fantastic film!

In this film, Bond is believed to be dead for months after accidental friendly fire, leading to a criminal escaping with a flash drive containing the identities of agents placed in criminal organizations around the globe. And after an anonymous attack against MI6, Bond, who it turns out wasn’t dead, returns to Britain to resume service. The only problem (or should I say problems) is his physical and mental damage, rendering him less invincible than in previous features. Nevertheless, M, who is being pressured into retirement from service, clears him for duty. Following the trails laid out for him, Bond eventually comes into contact with the flash drive’s current possessor Raoul Silva, a former agent of MI6 believed to have been dead for years, but has been plotting revenge against M for her past sins.

The whole film can be summed up with the overused, but still poignant “Old dog, new tricks.” Turns out, this one phrase works its way into nearly every aspect present in Skyfall. This sticks out the most from a screenwriting perspective. I don’t know if I can think of any other film in the series which is so faithful to the original traditions of Bond, and yet so completely different at the same time. Maybe Casino Royale, but not like this. Of course, we still get the same wit and excitement that we crave from 007, but this film creates a different kind of mixture. Not only do we hear about portions of Bond’s life, we’re practically shown the conditions of how he grew up. This film makes more of an effort at diving into his psychological state than any other title I can think of. For Daniel Craig, this is his shining moment of the franchise, and this is the Bond that everyone deserves to see. Beneath the typically icy exterior of Craig lies a glimpse of a subdued pain, backed up by great writing and an excellent performance, before he completes his evolution into the Bond that we all know and love. On top of that, the movie also touches into his almost maternal bond with M, with Judi Dench also providing her best work in the series. That doesn’t mean we lose any of the beloved staples, mind you. In fact, the film pays the proper homage to all these classic fashions, whether it’s the obvious Aston Martin or the lesser known pen grenade. And the fact that this film finally introduces Moneypenny and Q into the new timeline doesn’t hurt.

When it comes to direction, none of the others films even come close to how stellar this movie is. I seriously go back and forth on whether I consider Skyfall or Road to Perdition as Mendes’ best film. Worries on whether he could handle action were obviously for naught, but the reason the studio’s choice was so inspired was because of Mendes’ best quality: His focus on great characters and great performances. He focuses on what he should be focusing on, getting the best performances from his cast. His sense of pacing, his control with character, and his ability to extract every ounce of potential out of this movie as humanly possible, while paying proper homage to the old staples of the Bond series, is just phenomenal. Mendes (who worked with Craig on Road to Perdition) is a professional with actors, and the ensemble cast that he has to work with is stellar to the last digit. People sometimes liken his style for this film to The Dark Knight, which Mendes apparently drew inspiration from in making this movie, but I just don’t see that influence at all. Maybe one or two beats feel similar, but aside from that, I think it’s superficial. This is a Bond film through and through, told with an original vision, and considering Christopher Nolan admitted to drawing influence from the Bond saga for his Dark Knight trilogy, the influence feels even less obvious.

Best of the cast? For me, that distinction belongs to Javier Bardem as Raoul Silva, a character who many regard as one of the better Bond villains. In my opinion, I think he’s THE best Bond villain, and the main reason is because of his motivations. He’s not in league with a major organization or driven by petty goals like wealth or world domination. His goals are much more intimate and personal. This is simply a man who’s been scarred by past events, betrayed by the people he trusted most, and now seeks revenge against the cause of it all. Are his methods extreme? Absolutely, there’s no denying that, but the movie at least helps up to understand and sympathize with the pain that he’s endured. And Bardem just nails the character right on the head. He’s intelligent, conniving, malicious, and at times, he’s even funny. If I’m not mistaken, I heard he even improvised that entire story about the rats on the island his grandmother owned. That is some genius acting.

Just like in the writing and the direction, old dog new tricks even works its way into the technical elements. This is how a Bond film should be made. With great photography, gorgeous sets and costumes, great sound design, catchy music, and top notch practical action sequences with little to no digital manipulation (they couldn’t really film alongside scorpions and komodo dragons, could they?). That’s the short version of it, but each element deserves more words than just that. Dennis Gassner’s sets and Jany Temime’s wardrobe do a great job at emphasizing place and character. Chris Corbould is smart to favor on set effects and miniatures for the action, and only rely on CG when necessary. Scott Millan and Greg P. Russell had a hard job trying to fit Karen Baker and Per Hallberg’s stellar sound design and Thomas Newman’s slick score in, but they pulled it off with finesse. Of course, the one person no one can stop talking about is DP Roger Deakins. With good reason, for this is some of his greatest work to date, and the best use of digital photography I can think of. Nobody does lighting or photography better than he does, and the angles, shadows, zooms, pans, and close ups outshine any DP assignment in the past few years, minus The Tree of Life. Simply put, it’s the best looking Bond ever.

 My eyes got huge and my jaw gradually dropped when I saw this scene.

Finally, I’ll bring up the other popular element from this movie; Adele’s title song. This is the best song I’ve ever heard written for a Bond film because, again, it takes a very old-fashioned approach, but gives itself this sense of style that many of the other songs can’t boast. It’s a work that feels fully original, but you can still see the influence she drew upon, such as the jazzy sway of “Goldfinger”, the classy modernization and epic build up of “You Know My Name”, and the memorable beauty of “Nobody Does It Better”, while also using Monty Norman’s original Bond theme in the background progressions. With the melancholy melody, the thematically linked lyrics, and Adele’s soulful voice, it’s just a perfect song to me.

This song. Is. PERFECT!

All of this was no less than Skyfall deserved. The end of the film hints at a return to the old mold of the classic Bond films, but after this movie, I don’t think I ever want to go back. I want to see them continue to try new things, break out of the norm, get some fresh ideas on the table. Oh well, maybe the future will surprise me. Casino Royale was such a fresh and elegant treatment to give Bond, and this completed the evolution of the character with flying colors, becoming a smash hit. Critics lauded it, it became the new highest grossing Bond film ever, and it was only the third Bond film to ever win an Oscar. Two actually, as it won awards for Sound Editing and Original Song. It’s considered one of the best, and it’s my personal favorite. Every time I watch it, I like it even more than the last time. It’s a film that stays with you long after it’s concluded. Bond’s 50th anniversary couldn’t have been started on a better note, and it left us hungry for what would come in the next 50 years. It pleased longtime devotees, and won over new fans. This old dog does, in fact, still have new tricks up his sleeve.

***** / *****

Thus concludes my marathon of the 23 James Bond films. I’ll make one last post tomorrow with my thoughts on how far the franchise has come, and my excitement for the future. I’ll also be ranking the films and the Bonds, and listing the top five villains, Bond girls, and songs.

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