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Thursday, November 29, 2012

Skyfall

Is this the best Bond ever? Well....


With South Africa being seemingly one of the last places on earth to get Skyfall, we aren't just getting a film, as much as we're getting a Major Movie Event that has been hyped up, not only by a pretty damn aggressive  marketing campaign, but by some presumably hyperbolic praise by both critics and fans alike. The film may have a few lone dissenters - all of whom, incidentally, seem to really, really hate the film - but Skyfall has largely been met with a rather singular refrain, "The Best Bond Ever!"

At this point then, assuming that I don't join in with the hateful minority, the question is less whether it's a good Bond movie, but whether it truly is the absolute best of the best of this now 50 year-old franchise. To be entirely honest though, it's an impossible question to answer. The various eras of James Bond all had very different flavours: how do you really compare the grit of Casino Royale with the Voodoo-drenched lunacy of Live and Let Die or the archness of Goldfinger?

Whether or not Skyfall is the "best Bond" really does depend on what you're looking for from a Bond film. Skyfall certainly isn't the campiest, the most action-packed, the most well-traveled or the most fantastical film of the franchise and may well prove to be a disappointment to anyone looking for a Bond film steeped in those well-worn traditions. On a personal level too, as someone who does have a massive soft spot for the sillier aspects of the series, it would probably be a stretch to call Skyfall my all-time favourite Bond flick.

What I can say, though, is this: Skyfall is undoubtedly, on as objective a level as you can get when discussing any artform, the most accomplished and the most dramatic James Bond film to date.

Just on a purely technical level, no other Bond films come close to matching Skyfall's pedigree both behind and in front of the camera. On a purely subjective level, I do rate Daniel Craig as my second favourite Bond, just under Sean Connery but, as an actor, the man is simply without peer. Add to that a sterling supporting cast that includes such heavyweight thesps as Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Albert Finney and Ralph Fiennes and some similarly impressive but relatively newer faces in Berenice Merlohe, Ben Whishaw and Naomie Harris and you have what must be the first Bond film that works as a brilliant actors showcase.

Behind the camera, we have no less than a genuinely respected Oscar winning director working with unarguably one of the greatest cinematographers in the history of cinema. The director, of course, is Sam Mendes, the man behind such pieces of "serious" filmmaking as American Beauty, Revolutionary Road, Road to Perdition and, my dark-horse favourite, Away We Go. His undeniable abilities as a storyteller and his constant emphasis on human emotions in his films lends a real dramatic weight to Skyfall, while Away We Go and Road to Perdition have shown that he is hardly less adept at handling comedy and action scenes respectively.

As for the man who shot the film, I have all but run out of things to say about DP extraordinaire, Roger Deakins, but if you think the director of photography on such films as The Shawshank Redemption, The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford and nearly every Coen Brothers film since Barton Fink hasn't put together the best looking Bond film ever, you clearly haven't been paying attention. Bond films generally look pretty great but Deakins' work here in everything from the wet, green highlands of Scotland to the neon wonderland of Shanghai has resulted in a film where every single frame is nothing short of a work of art.



Still, this is a Bond movie and, while it's certainly vital that the filmmaking is up to snuff, what about all the stuff for which people go to Bond films in their millions to see? It's all very nice that Skyfall is beautiful and wonderfully acted (and really nicely scripted, by the way - Wade, Pervis and Logan have really stepped up their game this time round) but what about the cars, the gadgets, the stunts and, oh yes, the girls?

To be fair, many other Bond films have more action, more quips, more locations, more stunts, more gadgets and more time spent with their respective Bond Girls than in Skyfall overall, but few balance these different aspects quite as adroitly, nor do any of them have all these elements but with the very welcome real addition of a real emotional core.

While Casino Royale brought the film back to earth after a series of increasingly ludicrous - even by Bond's standards - installments, it did so at the expense of some beloved Bond elements, not least of which, teh gadgets and a memorable villain. Quantum of Solace, meanwhile - well, the less said about the woefully misjudged and stupidly titled Quantum of Solace the better.

Skyfall, however, keeps Casino Royale's grit and relative groundedness, but jettisoned its post-Bourne action scenes for something more Bond-like and, even more crucially, seems a hell of a lot more comfortable with its place in a franchise that hasn't been afraid in the past to embrace its own ridiculousness. Along with some very nicely done and not-too-obtrusive nods to the franchise's past five decades, Skyfall also introduces us to a new Q (Ben Whishaw) who gets a bigger role than ever and even a new, albeit toned-down gadget (because, honestly, has any previous Bond gadget been as impressive as your iPad?) or two.

The film also features explosive, but coherent action scenes (an increasing rarity in today's ADHD-riddled action genre) and plenty of quips, cars and stunts. It also has in Javier Bardem, one of the franchise's best and most memorable villains - there's just something about Bardem with a silly haircut that seemingly instantly transforms him into the most menacing of bad guys. Remember his role in No Country for Old Men? Well, expect more of that here, only a hell of a lot campier and a good bit funnier. And we already know how great a Bond song Adele's Skyfall is, but the film also boasts one of the series' best opening credits sequences to g along with it.

If there is one area in which Skyfall is lacking in terms of ye old Bond staples, it's the Bond Girls. Don't get me wrong, Berenice Merlohe and Naomie Harris certainly act and look the part and, in the tradition of the newer Bond films, are more than just eye-candy, but their roles in the film are actually very small. The reason for that isn't because Bond's less of a cad, nor is it that they're not up to snuff - it's just that Skyfall concentrates its attention on a very different "Bond Girl".  



Judi Dench's M has long been one of the best parts of all modern Bond films -even the bad ones - but, for the first time ever, M is front and centre of the action. Not only does the always wonderful Dench get more to do in this film than in all previous Bond films combined, the entire plot of the film revolves around her and it is her complicated maternal relationship with Bond himself that proves to be both the heart and the driving force of the film.

Skyfall's plot, in a great departure for the series, has nothing to do with a bad guy who wants to rule the world or, as is the case of the more grounded Bond films, a Cold War or post-9/11 story, but is intimately personal as M finds herself the target of a former agent with a major grudge to settle and its up to Bond to protect this woman who is both extremely important to him, but is also someone who has in the past and continues to be willing to coldly sacrifice her agents for what she sees as the greater good.

This shift of focus in plot completely alters the very nature of this particular Bond film to its very core. Yes, the old Bond stuff is still there, but this is a Bond film that also offers very personal stakes, greater emotional heft and some genuine characterization for both M and Bond, as well as a never before attempted examination of their relationship that has been central to most Bond films but, until now, entirely ignored. It's a surprising new development that may not entirely jive with some of previous outings but it's beautifully played here.

Mind you, Skyfall isn't quite perfect. At nearly two and a half hours, it is a bit on the long side and its pacing is on occasion somewhat wonky. Also, if you're looking for anything even remotely resembling continuity between films, the end may well leave you more confused than ever as to when this is happening in the overall Bond timeline. Even those of us who aren't anal about something as ludicrous as Bond continuity, though, there is a more central problem that it's hard to quite work out whether Craig's Bond is supposed to be a seasoned veteran or a relatively fresh agent.

These are nitpicks though. I neither know, nor care whether or not Skyfall is in fact the best Bond film ever, but it's a superior piece of entertainment that not only celebrates the long legacy of James Bond but does so by showing that this old dog is not above learning some new tricks. And when its new tricks are greater levels of depth and emotion, only the most stubborn of purists wouldn't welcome this new era of the world's most famous spy with open arms.
                 

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