Saturday, November 10, 2012

Skyfall (IMAX)

Austerity Measures: Old Dogs, With Older Tricks

Daniel Craig as James Bond 007 in Sam Mendes' film "Skyfall".
François Duhamel/Sony Pictures, MGM


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Saturday, November 10, 2012

Bursting with energy, hair-raising stunts and strong acting, "Skyfall", directed by Sam Mendes, easily enters the upper echelon of Bond films as a top-five entry.  "Skyfall" is as good as, if not slightly better than, the arresting, more detailed "Casino Royale" (save for a slightly awkward though gripping finale), but "Skyfall" is also deeper and more involving, with higher stakes and a stronger emotional undercurrent that connects us to principal characters we've known for fifty years on the big screen. 

You know his name and game.  James Bond however, in this 23rd film, is getting a tad bit old and rusty, and "Skyfall" milks every bit of this to palpable, almost parodying effect.  You may think of Lee Majors running a treadmill as "The Six Million Dollar Man" during one sequence as Bond (Daniel Craig) rehabilitates after taking a big step backwards.  Vulnerability is at the heart of this thrilling, relentless film, with M (Judi Dench), who has made a judgment call that drastically affects Bond and by extension Britain's super spy agency MI6, with its agents in a counter-terrorism operation exposed.  M, the aging queen of the agent mission division, is swirling in a sea of doubt, loyalty issues and mistrust by fellow MI6 operatives, and faces questions about her ability to lead the OO agent operatives.  The M and OO7 relationship forms the fine heart of "Skyfall" and it is treated with the tenderness and brusque tough love that makes it so affectionate and winning.  Ms. Dench is exceptional here playing a heroic and introspective M, her best work in the Bond film series.

The bulk of this terrific film is defined by the tensions between today's super-efficient technology and older, traditional ways of snuffing out threats by terrorists.  It's the sleekness vs. "the shadows".  Mr. Mendes directs scenes that showcase these two tensions separately and sometimes together.  The intertwining of both is shown in the simultaneous cool and warmth of the Shanghai sequence, an attractive blend.  Bond, M and new operative Eve (Naomie Harris) are firm believers in fighting crime the old-fashioned way, while rogue MI6 agent Silva (Javier Bardem), a flamboyant and charismatic villain with many choice lines of dialogue and a score to settle, believes in conservatism by utilizing the latest technology.  "All this running and jumping and shooting, it's so exhausting.  You need to relax, Mr. Bond," says Silva during a penultimate part of "Skyfall", a film that demands multiple viewings particularly on IMAX, a format that captures this film's excellent stunt work, international locales and expansive open spaces so powerfully, thanks to the ever-outstanding Roger Deakins, with his stellar cinematography.  There's also wonderful production design by Dennis Gassner, especially the MI6 operational center. 

"Skyfall" is about holding on to old reliable gadgets in the wake of not only an ever-upgrading technological age but a more multicultural, diverse Britain -- even as MI6 stoutly and resolutely tries to hold fast to the Britain of Winston Churchill.  While the symbolism of Mr. Churchill and British Bulldog nationalistic pride that "Skyfall" revels in so sweetly is noble and nostalgic -- a perfect way to celebrate 50 years of Bond -- the casting of Ms. Harris, the talented black British actress, who is excellent as Eve, a campy, calculating Mr. Bardem as a possibly bisexual MI6 persona non grata, and Ben Whishaw ("Cloud Atlas"), perfect as a younger, androgynous Q, signal the shift in the social and cultural climate of London and England overall since the nadir in 2008 of Marc Forster's punchless "Quantum Of Solace".  The new Q, in priceless banter, astutely recognizes the financial realities of a Europe mired in economic turmoil.  He engages in a few austerity measures of his own when arming Bond: one gun and a tracking signal.  "This isn't Christmas, is it?," Bond replies wryly.

Fighting terrorism with old-fashioned methods is arguably a bigger David for the remote-control dispatch of Goliath destruction than any of the prior Goliaths Bond has faced with villains like Jaws, (the towering Richard Kiel).  Where the weaponry villains used was dangerous but cartoonish in hindsight in past Bond films, the technology and its methods in "Skyfall" are depicted as villainous and often limiting; a hard drive with crucial information is never retrieved.  The technology is dangerous not solely because it is in the wrong hands in many cases in "Skyfall" but because it is relatable to recent terrorist attacks.  When London Regional Transport Tube trains run afoul in the London Underground in one scene many may instantly think of the London tube attacks of 2005.  Real terror in the belly of London.  MI6 still has a few shadows, and Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) is shot in several interesting ways which signal strong suspense and set up great intrigue for the next Bond episode.

Mr. Mendes and screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan shrewdly pinpoint the pulse of a new Britain, mining the hallmark of British iconic thoroughfares like the Tube system and highlights their strengths and weak points, sometimes with great humor.  The filmmakers, who shake and stir the great Bond films of the past like a martini and distill their finer elements into "Skyfall", take full inventory of Ian Fleming's superspy character.  Mr. Craig has now grown stronger and more impressive in playing a human, susceptible and ailing Bond who feels but has less time to make love to any women, let alone Bond girls (Bérénice Marlohe) and more time to royally kick ass.  He even engages in some homoerotic banter that provokes laughs.  Thankfully Bond can still run and jump, and dispatches of foes even more quickly and efficiently in the old-fashioned ways, keeping with Bond tradition and austerity at the same time.  Yet old-fashioned ways have their disadvantages. 

Still, in "Skyfall" death is cheated, embraced and fully realized (emphasized by the opening credit animated sequence and song by Adele), and age is made poignant.  Dame Judi Dench, who in real life is growing progressively blind through the condition macular degeneration, is seen in a portrait shot looking out of a window early on, and one of her eyes is visible.  It's an emotional moment accompanied by a nice cinematic touch, a moment, whether made intentionally or otherwise by Mr. Mendes, that resonated for me on a goose-bump scale.  I instantly thought of Ms. Dench's current plight.  On another emotional scale Ms. Harris and Mr. Craig almost melt the screen in a couple of sensual moments.  Look at their eyes as they talk to each other.  The screen drips with innuendo.

The drab of London, and later, Scotland, with its countryside expanse, ironically provides an intimacy and familiarity that brings us to the heart of Bond's roots in an often effective though overlong climax.  Mr. Mendes knows how to grant characters entrances in "Skyfall", and he gives Silva a couple of very good ones.  Directors of Bond films rarely get the credit they truly deserve but Mr. Mendes merits a lot of it here for keeping action tight, taut (though sometimes theatrical) and the nerve centre of crisis strictly in London, where tradition is literally and figuratively under attack.  For the most part Mr. Mendes makes "Skyfall" riveting, efficient and blunt, using old tricks and augmenting them into the newer realities of fighting fire with fire.  When the finale of this enthralling, action-packed film arrives, both sides of MI6 fight with old and new ways of score-settling.  It's hard to get rid of those old dogs.  They won't go down without one bloody hell of a fight.

Also with: Rory Kinnear, Ola Rapace, Albert Finney, Helen McCrory, Bill Buckhurst.

"Skyfall" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for intense violent sequences throughout, some sexuality, language and smoking.  The film's running time is two hours and 23 minutes.  

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