Sunday, November 18, 2012

James Bond will be back in...oh crap, he IS back!

Behold, the further responses to my getting my self-described punk-ass to the theaters more often this season - another writeup on something that's actually recent.  I promise, we will have some more weird shit lined up in the pipe soon.  We're trying to keep things diversified here, but even outside of that, I do love the weirdness from time to time.

That said, this one I actually saw prior to last entry's The Man With the Iron Fists.  At the same time, given Iron Fists had been out longer at that point, it made more sense to spread the word on that one a bit more, since it seemed to be the more likely to be out of theaters first.

Plus, the movie on which we're about to speak isn't gonna be in any real danger of falling through the cracks right now anyway.  In starting, I have to say I'm actually kind of surprised this film is proving the hit it is.  Sure, it's part of a big franchise, but even then prior to a few weeks ago, it didn't seem that hyped up.  Then strong advanced reviews seemed to really stroke the fire. Flashforward to now, where Skyfall opened to strong box office numbers and some glowing critical praise.  I have to say, for a film that almost didn't happen, it proved well worth the wait.  Before I go on though, I just want to say for the record, I did slightly miss them abandoning the idea established by the first two Daniel Craig entries of making this a direct continuation, doubly so since the last entry had put a lot out there to play with.  Further on that, while I admit it was disappointing, I didn't actually dislike Quantum of Solace as much as some do, and I was curious to see what would be done with the ideas it brought to the table, even for all of its shortcomings.  Shortcomings that, despite what many believed, weren't actually to blame for Skyfall's troubles getting to the screen.  While it received a mixed critical response after Casino Royale's strong arrival, QoS still managed to make a decent return at the box office for a Bond film.

On a bizarre side observation, the more I watch him, the more I feel like, in another ten years, Daniel Craig would be perfect for a Vladmir Putin biopic.  But that's a discussion for another time.

That said, for a standalone Bond movie, this still a surprisingly large story for the franchise - starting from a pretty fast-paced prologue which leaves Bond for dead to a very different face of MI-6 on his return.  Starting the film with Bond assumed dead is strangely fitting, given how long the question remained over whether this movie would even happen when MGM, the active rights holders, filed for bankruptcy.  That said, this different face is actually one of the areas where this film stands out in the franchise - a major theme in this entry is the notion of change, and the movie explores this on several levels.  In his third outing as Bond,
Craig handles it well on the personal level, as we see fairly early on that his time out of training has left him far from the cold, professional assassin we saw him grow into in Casino Royale.  In fact, he's actually something of a wreck in this movie.  He can still hold his own, but he's no longer the walking weapon he once was, and now has to try and get past his old demons to get into the game.  This take on Bond is actually perfect for him, really.  Craig nails the weariness that's hanging on the character in this movie perfectly.

Alcohol - The REAL secret to keeping calm and carrying on.

The external changes lie on much of the rest of the cast, who are certainly not slouching in their regards.  Following an attack on MI-6, a major plot of the movie involves the British government questioning the relevancy of the MI-6 style of espionage in an age of cyber terrorism and information warfare.  Caught up in the middle of this storm is Judi Dench returning for another tour of duty as M.  Here more than ever, the decision to carry Dench over from the Brosnan years to the Craig reboot feels perfect.  Just as the questions of whether or not MI-6 is still relevant are called into question, so too are M's qualities as a leader in this new age.  Despite being under questioning of the well-meaning, if not entirely agreeing Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes, who becomes a sort of middle ground between the 'old' and 'new' views as the film goes on,) Dench still maintains a strong demeanor, determined not to step down from her position quietly.  A scene where she speaks before the British government about her feelings on why MI-6 is necessary now more than ever is where Dench's subtle strength plays out clearest.  For all the entries in the franchise she's been attached to, this is easily her high note.

"You hear that?  That's the sound of all the fanfiction that's getting written up thanks to this scene.  Now THAT is cyberwarfare for you!"

That said, the one other performance that merits a lot of well-deserved praise comes in the film's villain, and the most direct face the film has on the 'new' era of espionage - cyberterrorist Rodrigo Silva (Javier Bardem.)  Going into the film, this was the one bit of casting I was most looking forward.  With his turn as the grim assassin Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, Bardem gave a genuinely chilling performance.  He felt less human, almost supernatural force of nature - someone who couldn't be reasoned with, bargained with, and definitely not intimidated.  As Silva, he hits a different sort of malevolence, but attacks it with just as much passion - where Chigurh is unsettling because of how detached he is, Silva is more outgoing and involved in his work.  For him, it's less a professional act, and more of a game, albeit one he plays for keeps.  He is gleefully proud of his work, and in particular the knowledge of what it's doing to his former mentor in M, and that is part of what makes him so genuinely disturbing.  His first scene in the film, in fact his first meeting with Bond, is where this is played the strongest.  He is reveling in his victories and is eager to start up the next stage of the game, rather amused with seeing how Bond himself has chosen to fall by the wayside. 

Looks legit to me, I don't know what all the security officers are talking about.

Again, the movie plays the 'old vs new theme' strongly, and actually benefits a lot from it - both within its own setting, and as a means of reconciling a franchise where several of the elements could be seen as out of date in the current day and age -a concept the movies have floated since Casino Royale, but never addressed head-on before.

That said, while I do still feel this is one of the franchise's strongest entries, it isn't without some of its drawbacks.  While Sam Mendes and his writing team (Robert Wade, John Logan, and Neal Purvis) have put together a strong entry to signal the franchise's return from almost death and reinjected it with a lot of life, his first entry out is also somewhat unwieldy at points.  For all the interesting ideas the movie plays in, the last act feels overly long and, despite an impressive final showdown, does drag on compared to the first two-thirds.  Additionally, if any of you out here are adherents to the theory that 'James Bond' is just a codename, let me just say this aforementioned third act MAY be something of a middle finger to you (albeit one that does provide some bonus in a great supporting role by Albert Finney.)  Further on the script, one of the main backbones of its story, the vendetta Silva bears towards M, feels rather underwhelming when everything is said and done.  For a connection that is supposed to be a major piece of what made Silva into the maniac he is when we see him, the movie glosses over much of any sense of a connection between the two.  In fact, the one time we actually get any real in depth  sense of their past together is a quick story from M before the plot moves forward again.  Were it not such a major part of the plot, I wouldn't mind this, but when his desire for revenge is the big part of what makes up the earlier mentioned third act, to have it feel so lacking is a bit surprising.  The other major issue I had with this film came with the film's female handling beyond Dench.  Now, I realize the 007 franchise isn't exactly the best place to be looking for strong female performances as a rule, but when the initial promotions showed us Naomie Harris as a fellow MI-6 agent, I had some pretty high expectations on where the role would go.  After seeing her in 28 Days Later, she had proven she had the chops to be a strong lead, and I looked forward to seeing what she could do in a role where the character's training would call for being able to hold her own.  Unfortunately, beyond the prologue, she is largely ignored, acting as an information source from time to time and largely just being around to set up a payoff at the end of the film.  Again, I realize that's a more personal expectations to a degree, but it genuinely felt like a waste here.

Seriously, I see promo stills like this and it's hard NOT to have that expectation built up.

In one last note, and one that you can't discuss Bond without going into, I have to say the titular theme song for this movie REALLY made up for last time.  Where QoS's theme was...honestly one of the weakest in the franchise, Adele's theme for Skyfall is well performed, memorable, and is shaping up to be one of the greats that we'll be remembering in years to come.  It actually even feels like she was a great choice for this one too.  The track both fits her style as well as getting the classic 'Bond theme' sound to it.  Again, like much of this movie, a great balance of old and new.

"For the last time, no gun till you say the magic word.  I KNOW M taught you the magic word, so just say it."

Overall, this is the way you return from the brink in film.  Even with its flaws, the film is still a Hell of a ride, and when it does something well, it does it VERY well.  Throw in the fact this movie is setting the groundwork to continue the franchise (alongside the earlier mentioned themes of changing with the times, this movie offers the offcial return of Q branch, with the role of the late Desmond Llewellyn now taken up by Ben Whishaw, further adding to the young face of information and technology.)  It's a curious mix of feeling like a final chapter and a new beginning all in one, and I hope this take on the series will be continued in the future.  I didn't expect to get this into this one either, but there you have it.

Keep an eye out this week, we have another 'in theaters' entry lined up, and in honor of Thanksgiving, I'll even promise some turkey too.

...and yes, I spent the 'Will be back' joke at the start of this entry for a change.  I also actually used it in a case where it's appropriate for once.  Neither of these things will likely happen again.

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