Saturday, February 9, 2013

SKYFALL: Blu-ray (MGM/Columbia 2012) MGM/Fox Home Video

Sam Mendes’ Skyfall (2012) isn’t so much a throwback to Sean Connery’s Bond as it quickly degenerates into a semi-desperate attempt to simultaneously return to the roots of Ian Fleming while continuing to muck around and contemporize the filmic formula for Bond as established by the late Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman. Just how successful Mendes is in playing around with these variables? Hmmm. Bond 23 is an action packed, dark and brooding thriller with some acute surprises along the way, delving more deeply into Bond’s private world than perhaps any other movie in the franchise. Yet the bio that visually crystalizes before our very eyes isn’t so much a revelation as mere back story about an iconic movie character that we, the audience, really don’t need to know all that much about to enjoy and admire. James Bond is what he is: a dashing MI6 super spy with a penchant for girls, gadgets and glamor.   
I must say that Bond 23 left me with mixed emotions and a complete disconnect from my well preserved memories of other Bonds in the series. Each actor who has assumed the role has reshaped the legacy in meaningful ways; Connery’s masculine chic, Roger Moore’s gentlemanly polish, George Lazenby’s earthy attractiveness, Timothy Dalton’s gritty sophistication, Pierce Brosnan’s courtly suaveness and now, Daniel Craig’s…well…it’s difficult to say exactly what Craig’s contributions to the role and series are at this point.
This is Daniel Craig’s third outing as the amiable MI6 field agent, bringing a contemporary action anti-hero’s habitual thirst for gritty brutality to the role. Timothy Dalton tried to do as much for Bond in Licence to Kill (1989) – widely regarded as one of the worse movies in the franchise. But that was then, on the heels of Roger Moore’s iconic tenure as the ‘Bond-light’; a devil-may-care bon vivant who simply fought the bad guys to maintain his fabulously decadent lifestyle; free booze and free love abounding and plentiful: noblesse oblige.
Since 1989 Bond’s producers have gradually made the conscious effort to abandon most of Roger Moore’s indelible trademarks in favor of resurrecting a more serious undercurrent of immediacy. We’ve gradually lost the bevy of sex kittenish beauties that used to parade in the backdrop as welcomed eye candy. The ‘Bond girl’ has gradually morphed from mere plaything to integral ‘his gal Friday’ – often with equal, and occasionally more, insight into a looming crisis than Bond. The gadgets are missing too. Bond is increasingly called upon to rely on his wits. But they still haven’t quite managed to break James of his predilection for pithy retorts. Except that when uttered by any actor other than Roger Moore these zingers seem strangely colorless and convivial rather than pointedly clever.
All this is decidedly in keeping with Ian Fleming’s original intent. Partly because of film censorship back in the day, and partly because Broccoli and Saltzman astutely realized that what clicks in literary fiction often struggles to find its niche in American cinema, the Bond books have always been much darker than their film counterparts. But now comes Skyfall – arguably the bleakest Bond yet – a surrealist noir in its theme and intent. So, is Daniel Craig merely catering to a more jaded audience? We’ll see.  
Craig, who spends most of Skyfall looking like eight miles of bad road or someone who’s been ridden hard and repeatedly hung out to dry, exerts a ruffian’s masculinity barely contained beneath his tuxedo. I’m not entirely certain this is altogether a Bondian characteristic.  The cream of the jest with Connery’s Bond was always that while he seemed capable of just about anything  – and quite often behaved in ways that would have downgraded the reputation of any other movie hero except Bond to the status of a common brute in a three piece suit (like belting around Daniel Biancchi in From Russia With Love (1963) or damn near choking Denise Perrier with her own bikini in Diamonds Are Forever (1971), Connery’s spy nevertheless wore the Teflon mantle of a debonair raconteur, his knowledge of the finer things in life giving 007 at least a veneer of refinement completely absence in Craig’s Bond.
The other seismic shift in the franchise has been to remake 007 as the resident pinup of the series. We saw it in Casino Royale (2006) first; this new ultra-buff Bond sporting a kick boxer six pack and pecs you could bounce quarters off, rising like Triton from the sea – affectionately being ogled by the local female color on a beach, and later wearing precious little other than his male pride as he endured some fetishistic scrotum torture at the hands of the villain. Yet, it has become something of a ‘thing’ since Casino Royale to have Bond shamelessly shirtless somewhere between the main titles and end credits.
In Skyfall, we get a couple of opportunities to appreciate this equal opportunity sexism; whether jauntily parading about his suite in nothing more than a towel, being shaved with a straight razor in the same getup by Miss Moneypenny, having his chest massaged and thighs caressed by the decidedly bisexual villain, or enduring the rigors of MI6 reconditioning in skintight exercise clothes after his return from the dead, Skyfall may show some skin – but almost all of it belongs to Daniel Craig looking angularly buff. Craig’s physical attributes from the neck down are amply on display - presumably to entice the female viewer to partake in the story. But what about the male viewer – arguably the franchise’s target audience since day one? Do we really care how good Bond looks without his Turnbull and Asser tailoring?   
For all his earthy naturalism, Daniel Craig has quickly devolved James Bond into just another action hero in the ever-increasing pantheon of rock ‘em/sock ‘em self-destructive hulks readily populating the big screen these days. But those old enough to remember Bond in his prime – classy, unruffled and immaculate – will be very hard pressed indeed to find similarities between Craig’s Bond and those iconic offerings from the past. Craig’s Bond is rough trade at best. He’s a scrapper unconvincingly masquerading as a gentleman.
That doesn’t necessarily bode well for James Bond. It never has. And Craig hasn’t taken the series back to the halcyon days of Sean Connery, but rather turned Ian Fleming’s super spy into the Jean Claude Van Damme of MI6 who can beat the hell out of most any opponent with his bare fists and drink most drunks under the table.  But why the elitist MI6 would choose to keep a guy like this in Vodka Martinis, much less consider him their number one pick to repeatedly save the world is frankly beyond me. 
Yet, for all its’ lack of charm, grace and continuity Skyfall manages to entertain – partly. Okay, mostly. No, partly…I think. Skyfall opens without the traditional gun barrel, a signature in every Bond classic since Dr. No (1962), but relegated to the end of both Quantum of Solace (2008) and Skyfall. It’s a mistake. Bond movies now open with an action sequence that segues into the main title; this one sung with nauseating tedium by current pop sensation Adele. But before the titles – constituted from a barrage of cryptic extreme close ups of Daniel Craig’s right eye, a skull and cross bones, tombstones and, an elk’s head that will become significant in the final act – we are treated to a Bond-eque action sequence involving Craig’s rough and ready 007.
Note to Sam Mendes and EVERY other director in Hollywood who has been taught to think that by violently panning and shaking a handheld camera, and then taking a Ginsu to this raw footage somehow translates into having ‘created’ definitive action as cinema art – think again: you haven’t!  Skyfall’s opener is disorientating to say the least, able to cause bouts of temporary motion sickness as it completely ignores the three wall or ‘proscenium rule’ that has long since not been adhered to when making action movies.
The premise for all this equilibrium destabilizing mayhem involves Bond and fellow operative – Eve (Naomie Harris) in pursuit of French assassin, Patrice (Ola Rapace) for the murder of an MI6 agent and the theft of a NOC list containing the real names of NATO agents in danger of having their international cover blown. Gee, where have I seen this before? Oh right, in DePalma’s Mission Impossible (1996)!  Bond and Eve make chase through the bazaars of Turkey (shades of From Russia With Love) and Bond and Patrice ride motorcycles atop the rooftops a la 2009’s The International starring Clive Owen. Not to producer/writer Michael G. Wilson…get some new locales and some new ideas going for the next Bond - please.
Patrice proves a formidable enemy, jumping off a bridge onto the roof of a moving train. Bond, of course, makes chase while Eve recklessly pursues with maximum destructive power through the crowded streets, taking out vendors, merchants, shoppers and taxi cabs with equally disregard for their or her own safety until it’s all just one giant fire sale of hand woven rugs, prayer beads and hookah smoking gentry fleeing for their lives.
Inexplicably, the passenger train Bond and Patrice now find themselves on also contains a single flatbed with a massive bobcat crane – presumably because the Turks have absolutely no idea what sort of insurance liability this represents. Bond mounts the crane and uses it to dig into the passenger car directly in front where Patrice is hiding. Eve, a horrible shot, is ordered by M (Judy Dench) to take Patrice out with a massive assault rifle from her awkward hillside vantage. But whoops; she misses her mark and hits Bond in the chest instead. He plummets like a stone from a rickety trestle into the raging river beneath, presumably to his death. Bond, dead? Where have I seen this before? Oh right, You Only Live Twice (1967) – one of my least favorite Bond movies of all time.
Back in London M is under pressure from Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, who wants to dissolve MI6, presumably because spying is an outdated means of gathering top secret data. I’m not entirely sure what he intends to replace it with – world news updates from CNN? Mallory informs M that she has two months before her enforced ‘retirement’ and M replies that she intends to get to the bottom of the NOC list theft before her departure. It’s all very glib in a pinkies up, stiff upper lip, tight ass British sort of way. She patronizes him, he treats her condescendingly like a relic from the cold war. We get a new, though hardly improved M, vulnerable about leaving behind a world without 007, whose obituary she has just finished composing. She also quotes poetry from her late husband. No, I’m not kidding.
Only Bond is alive and living it up – or down – having miraculously survived his watery grave to inexplicably resurface at some beachfront ‘wanna hump-hump brothel’ in Belize. In the three months since his…um…death…Bond has been indulging his vices; loosely translated herein into rough sex and downing Tequila shots nightly with a scorpion on his wrist. Don’t ask – some macho crap about defying fate and living life on the edge – this translation belongs in a bad Tarantino movie not a Bond flick. But I digress.
Bond learns that someone has hacked into M’s computer to blow up MI6 headquarters by triggering a gas leak. So he comes back from the dead, turning up inside M’s apartment. She takes him to MI6’s new headquarters, bunkered in the bowels of the subway (oh, now that’s safe) and clears Bond for active duty after he takes a series of tests to prove he’s lost none of his edge. One problem: Bond has lost his edge. In fact he flunks his physical, psychological and target practice testing. None of this seems to matter to M who harbors a soft spot for Bond that is either situated east of the hole where her heart ought to be or somewhere in the back of that soft spot in her head where a total lack of logic persists.  M assigns Bond a new handler, Q (Ben Whishaw as a prepubescent computer genius whose only gadgets for Bond this time around are a Walter PPK sensitive only to Bond’s touch and a radio transmitter that vaguely resembles a magnet I currently have stuck to the door of my fridge.)
Bond tails Patrice to Shanghai. Someone on Mendes’ crew must be in love with this place because we get a ton of needless, glossy music-video-esque sweeps over the kinetic skyline at night. After killing Patrice, Bond meets up with Sévérine (Berenice Marlohe); not so much a Bond girl as a Bond girl knock off, borrowing whole mannerisms from Famke Janssen’s  Xenia Onatopp in Goldeneye (1995). You know what they say about imitation being the cheapest form…and Sévérine is bargain basement goods indeed; a child prostitute reared and repeatedly reamed by Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem); who basically bought her outright when she was only twelve. Yeeeuuuck!
Bond promises to kill Silva to protect Sévérine. Poor Mr. Bond. He shouldn’t make promises he can’t keep. After beating to a pulp two of Silva’s less physically fit bodyguards, one of whom is also devoured by a giant kimono dragon, Bond and Sévérine get a little action going aboard Silva’s yacht and in the shower. Where have I seen this before? Oh right, Casino Royale. Regrettably, Sévérine comes from that ever increasing backlog of Bond girls doomed to meet with an untimely end before their 24th birthday.
Silva’s men separate Bond from Sévérine, but take them both to the abandoned Hashima Island, headquarters for his international espionage. I’m still not sure what to make of Javier Bardem’s rogue spy, sporting a bad Miss Clairol bottle job and tacky plaid shirt and mismatched jacket and pants. No, I’m not going Mr. Blackwell…but Bardem is undeniably the most ill-dressed villain in Bond film history. He’s also the most perverse – not just in his ambitions, but also in a sort of off Broadway “Hi, I’m into kink” way as he delicately unbuttons Bonds collar and feels him up, letting his fingers do the walking from Bond’s pecs to his thighs, telling him there’s a first time for everything to which Bond glibly replies, “And what makes you think this is my first time?”
Silva used to be MI6’s premiere agent prior to Bond (really?!?), that is, until he ate his cyanide capsule on M’s orders during a botched operation in China. It rotted out his teeth and half his head which he currently fills with a removable metal plate (yeah, it’s gross). But Silva’s mommy fixation with M is twisted. He wants her to feel his pain - literally. After casually blowing away Sévérine in a William Tell, Silva is apprehended by Bond and returned to London to face down his nemesis. Pity M hasn’t the time to do this up right. But she’s due in front of the committee to defend her position on the NOC list fiasco. Remember, Silva was supposed to have stolen it, leaking bits to embarrass MI6 and destroy M’s reputation. Only, in true Hitchcock MacGuffin fashion, the list is never recovered or used as blackmail again by Silva, who escapes MI6 by getting Q to download a computer virus that inadvertently releases him from his holding cell. So what was the point of the NOC list in the first place? There wasn’t one. Just get over it and move on.
Making his way to the public hearing disguised as a police officer, Silva riddles the room in a hailstorm of bullets - none hitting his target. Bond rescues and abducts M to his ancestral home in Scotland named…you guessed it…Skyfall. The manor house, isolated somewhere in the moors, has been shuddered for decades. We meet Kincade (Albert Finney) a sort of crotchety groundskeeper Willie who wastes no time referring to Bond as the “little shit” before promising to help protect M from Silva and his seemingly endless army of mercenaries. These eventually descend on Skyfall, since booby-trapped with all sorts of MacGyver-esque explosive devices by Kincade, Bond and M.
Previously, Kincade had shown Bond and M a secret underground passage that extends from Skyfall to a nearby church. This comes in handy when, after having exhausted their makeshift ambush, Silva and his men fire-bomb the estate to snuff out Bond, M and Kincade. They also toast Bond’s beloved Aston Martin which made me want to cry – well, alright…not really. But I loved that car ever since Goldfinger.  Kincade and M escape underground and across the moors under the cover of night to the nearby church. Bond faces down one of Silva’s henchmen in a bog while Silva makes his way to the church.
I’m not exactly sure how to characterize what happens next. Silva becomes uh…motherly toward M who has been mortally wounded. He hugs her before placing the muzzle of his gun against her temple, leaning his own head against hers and encouraging her to shoot them both dead. Instead, Bond arrives in the nick of time (oh gee, we didn’t see it coming) knifing Silva in the back. Silva dies and M collapses in Bond’s arms, also dying. In the final moments Bond is reunited with Eve atop a building in downtown London. Eve’s last name we learn is “Moneypenny”. Meanwhile, Gareth becomes the new M.
At this point you are probably asking yourself, “Hey, isn’t Naomie Harris black?”  Do not attempt to adjust your color and contrast. She is. How exactly this resonates with Lois Maxwell’s time-honored, but decidedly Caucasian Moneypenny - that deliriously comedic middle aged wannabe who could never get into Bond’s pajamas; at least, not while he was in them - or any of the other much younger, though decidedly pasty replicas featured in the franchise since Maxwell’s time is anybody’s guess.  But Moneypenny has magically morphed into a slinky Afro-Brit whom Craig’s Bond is definitely interested in.
Skyfall isn’t a bad movie. Certainly it’s an improvement on the catastrophe that was Quantum of Solace. But it isn’t a particularly exceptional Bond movie either. The de-glamorization of Bond begun with Timothy Dalton’s departure from the series, and rapidly accelerated since Daniel Craig took over the role, is debilitating to the franchise. The point of all Bond movies from yesteryear is that they didn’t look or play like other action/adventure movies of their ilk or vintage. They were in a class apart. Regrettably, Skyfall isn’t unique. It’s just there.
Mendez and his team are not even trying to adhere to any of the long-standing principles. Javier Bardem’s villain isn’t super human. He’s sub-human. Do we like him or love to hate him – which is basically the same thing? The short answer is no. Bardem, a gifted actor, makes the most of what he’s been given. But he’s more amusing than ominous – a freak whose warped sense of fun never rivals standout Bond villains like Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe) or Moonraker’s Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale).  His whole premise for murdering M out of some frustrated maternal fetishism is flawed, especially when given numerous chances to do so he blows virtually every single one. Kinky? Sick? Titillating? None of the above. Just queer – and more so than Bardem’s homoerotic tendencies toward Craig’s overtly masculine Bond. 
As an IMAX experience Skyfall worked on the most superficial level; not as a good movie but as a thoroughly anesthetizing viewing experience. You can mask a lot of sins in artistic judgment simply by dominating the audience with images moving in rapid succession across a very large canvas. But Bond 23 doesn’t move very fast after its initial train wreck/chase that kicks off the show and ends with Bond’s presumed death. No, after that we are treated to some semi-stylish camera work that attempts – but doesn’t entirely succeed – at returning Bond to the sort of 1960s visual glam-bam it used to be.
I’ve written quite enough about where I believe history will place Daniel Craig’s importance in the Bond legacy. But Ben Whisham behaving as something of a simpering academic, still wet behind the ears, and pitifully unable to block even a hacker’s generic computer virus, left me pining for the super inventive Desmond Llewellyn as that masterful, if somewhat stodgy, gadget master ‘Q’. Whisham, or someone just as young, will undoubtedly reappear in the next Bond movie, but I don’t really like where the series is headed.
Daniel Craig may or may not do another Bond. Either way his days in the series are numbered. He looks too old against this ever regressive aging cycle of the central cast and it won’t be long before the producers likely decide that the new James Bond will need to be a Brit in his late twenties, who eats his Wheaties and looks good in a thong, but who also can stay the course beyond just a couple of films. Aside: Roger Moore holds the record for the most Bond movies with a tally of 7 to Sean Connery’s 6, Pierce Brosnan’s 4, Timothy Dalton’s 2 and George Lasenby’s 1. Craig is currently holding steady at #3. Will he tie Brosnan for a swan song? We’ll have to wait and see.
Bottom line: Skyfall is good but not great. Gutsy and bold in some of the decisions the producers have made, but misfiring more often than not. Will it impress the Bond novice who knows nothing about the series before Craig? Debatable. Is it an instant Bond classic. Hardly. Will it mature into one as the years wear on? Foolhardy to speculate this soon, but I just don’t think so. Should you see it, if indeed you haven’t already? It’s Bond…James Bond. Enough said.
Skyfall on Blu-ray is no surprise. Just how fast it’s been released to hi-def perhaps is. It was only last November that Skyfall had its world premiere. Originated digitally has probably expedited and eased its conversion to 1080p. Skyfall is nothing short of spectacular in hi-def. Wow!  Roger Deakin’s moody cinematography absolutely pops. I detected a fleeting glimpse of edge enhancement over one of the Shanghai aerial shots but otherwise the image herein will surely NOT disappoint. Fans are in for a treat – a big one! The DTS 5.1 audio has a sonic intensity during the more obvious SFX laden action sequences. But it was the quiescent moments that tingled my acoustic nerve; full of subtly nuanced sounds – all crisply rendered for a scintillating aural experience.
Extras are plentiful, again – as expected. Sam Mendes, Barbara Broccoli, Michael G. Wilson and Production Designer Dennis Gassner give it their all on two separate audio tracks, detailing the gestation of the project. The behind the scenes junkets are less impressive, the longest running just a little under seven minutes, the shortest well below the 2 min. mark. Cumulatively, they add up to just under an hour of goodies covering the project from virtually every conceivable angle, but with that sound byte mentality that keeps producing extras like these cheap, but also suggests no one will sit through anything longer. Bottom line: it’s Bond – James Bond. Recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

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