Skyfall

Last rat standing

The 007 film series took a step forward in the Brosnan era: despite the movies not being very good, the introduction of a female “M” (leader of MI6) was a progressive change.  This time around, we get three powerful female figures, which is all well and good until two of them die and the third becomes a secretary.  Skyfall, in spite of its strengths as an action movie and its inarguable superiority over the abysmal Quantum of Solace (Olga Kurylenko’s performance notwithstanding), is a step backwards in nearly all other ways.

The newest Bond story, not based upon any of Ian Fleming’s original material (most of which has been exhausted by the twenty-three films), follows James Bond (Daniel Craig on his third run) as he fakes his own death, retires from MI6, and becomes reinstated after a crisis calls for his expert attention.  M (played by Judi Dench for the seventh and final time) needs Bond to deal with a cyberterrorist and former MI6 agent called Silva (Javier Bardem).  Silva, though, is obsessed not with wealth, not with base destruction, not even with Bond himself, but with M and her apparent disregard for her own agents.  “Mommy,” as he refers to her, once left Silva to die after a failed operation, and instead of killing himself while captive, Silva only succeeded in melting his own jaw with cyanide, making him look a bit like Richard Kiel’s “Jaws” character from Moonraker.

Silva’s style of terrorism revolves around hokey Youtube videos linked with the message “Think on your sins.”  When Bond returns to action, the film plays like it’s the first time Bond is doing any of this stuff (which they already tried in Casino Royale, with less tedious results).  He fails all of his tests, but is allowed to go after Silva anyway, and teams with agent Eve (Naomie Harris) and the newly-appointed Q (Ben Whishaw) to – to what?  We don’t really know.  But after a few stylized fight scenes (one of which involves an enormous CG komodo dragon), Bond finds himself on Silva’s personal island, where the latter runs his operations from a single laptop and a 1980s supercomputer.  Silva tells a parable about rats (which, given its level of attention in a film of this type, must be the scripture by which the story’s metaphors, ironies, and ideologies operate until the end), after which Bond dispatches his guards and takes the villain into custody.  We get the feeling this capture was too easy, however, and soon learn that Silva’s plan was to be captured, make his escape, and kill M after a public humiliation entailing her admission of MI6’s failures.  What follows might be the most well-shot gunfight of this year’s films.  It includes not only the main players, but also Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), M’s boss, who thinks MI6 is an old fossil not worth the government paychecks it absorbs.  The film’s third act explores some Bond backstory (all invented for the film) and visits Skyfall Manor, Bond’s childhood home, where the caretaker (Albert Finney) is still watching over things.  Bond reveals to him the film’s entire plot in a nutshell: “Some people are coming to kill us.  We’re going to kill them instead.”

Throughout the film, we are told that sometimes “the old ways are best,” yet the only callbacks to the original Bond movies are brief references in the form of an Aston Martin and the old Dr. No theme song that appeared in almost all twenty-three onscreen adventures. Soon after, though, the Aston Martin is blown up, and Judi Dench is replaced by Ralph Fiennes in the role of M (a role originally inhabited by Bernard Lee and taken by men up until 1997’s Goldeneye), indicating that the best of the “old ways” is the idea of a man-centric action fantasy, not the beloved conventions of the series, and certainly not the progression the films of the 90s strove for.  The line about the “old ways” is spoken by Finney’s character as he places a combat knife in front of Bond.  This is meant to be foreshadowing (Bond, of course, will end up killing Silva with the proverbial “Chekhov’s Knife”), but to the unenlightened, I offer this tidbit: you should not realize that an event was foreshadowed until after the event happens.  If the film gives you a clue and you figure out what’s going to happen before it happens, that’s not foreshadowing; it’s just a clumsy spoiler.  Hasn’t Sam Mendes heard of the old “two weeks til retirement” trope?

Skyfall snatches a defeat from the jaws of victory when it comes to its female characters.  It also contains several holes we’re expected to overlook: what is the purpose of Severine (Bérénice Lim Marlohe), other than to be naked and dead?  Why include her sad backstory and only keep her alive for five minutes, with Bond later referring to her demise as a “waste of good Scotch” (not to mention that he took advantage of her after she mentioned suffering sexual assault in her youth)?  How does Silva know that Bond will go through such an arduous quest (and survive) to capture him?  If he wanted to be captured, why not simply turn himself in to MI6?  Why is Eve, who saved Bond multiple times in the film’s early scenes (including defeating an armed henchman with nothing but a high-heeled shoe) considered “not cut out” for field work?  Why doesn’t she participate in the final battle at Skyfall Manor?  The revelation that her surname is “Moneypenny” demonstrates a slight misunderstanding of the character, but since they’re seating her behind a desk until further notice, I assume we’re not supposed to care.

In the original novels and short stories, Bond was complex.  His smoking and drinking were considered vices, and he often found himself in rehab and the hospital.  His womanizing, so glorified in the films, was an unbearable sex addiction in Fleming’s stories, and he lost the women because he either failed to protect them or they got sick of his bad habits.  To its credit, Skyfall attempts to reignite some of what made Bond human, not just a super-spy, though it’s not the same stuff Fleming used.  It’s not even from the same bucket of clay.

Craig gives his best Bond performance yet (the pressure to match Bardem’s performance as Silva probably contributed to that), and Naomie Harris is gorgeous, fun, and serious in the role of Eve.  Ola Rapace appears as Patrice, a silent hitman who should have been in the film for longer (but whose duel with Bond is shot on a wonderfully atmospheric set).  Whishaw’s new, younger Q is expertly handled, reflecting the relationship Bond had with the character in the old movies, and strongly echoes Desmond Llewelyn’s voice.  While Casino Royale was the be-all-end-all attempt at adapting one of Fleming’s books, Skyfall feels like a wholehearted attempt to reboot the films.

When asked why one of my students liked this film, he replied, “It has guns and attractive females.”  Who nowadays would believe that this film series was birthed from a series of beautifully written spy novels about an emotional, conflicted, and truly heroic character?

Skyfall (2012); written by Neal Purvis and John Logan; adapted from the original James Bond character by Ian Fleming; directed by Sam Mendes; starring Daniel Craig, Naomie Harris, Judi Dench, and Javier Bardem.

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The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

The burnt offering isn’t the film reel

Some time ago, I expressed apprehension about the American remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which I insist on calling a remake, despite the new film also being based upon the first novel in Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy.  I was certain the rape scenes would be toned down, that there would be little to no smoking, and that Daniel Craig would beat someone up, but in this case, I’m glad to have been partly wrong.  Is David Fincher’s remake as good as the Swedish version directed by Niels Arden Oplev in 2009?  No.  Is it still a great movie?  Yes.

I talked about the plot last time, but for frame of reference, I’ll retread.  Journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is in trouble, having lost a libel case against a wealthy businessman, and all he sees on television is the world shunning him.  His magazine is doomed.  Elsewhere in Sweden, young Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) loses her guardian and is forced under the control of the abusive Nils Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningan).  A phenomenal hacker working for a security firm, Lisbeth completes an extensive background check on Blomkvist for Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), former CEO of Vanger Industries.  Henrik then contacts Blomkvist, offering him two jobs: writing the memoirs of Henrik and his dysfunctional family, and discovering the fate of his great-niece, Harriet, whom he believes was murdered by a family member who may still live on Hedeby Island.  The stories of Lisbeth and Blomkvist remain separate until the latter realizes he’s going to need an assistant to help solve the case.  Also joining the cast are Robin Wright, Princess Buttercup herself, as Erika Berger, Blomkvist’s co-editor and lover; and Stellan Skarsgård as Martin Vanger, Henrik’s son and current CEO of the company.

Mara’s performance is an incredible breakthrough for her, and is every ounce as brave as Noomi Rapace’s performance as the same character.  Fincher’s version of Lisbeth, however, is clearly more emotionally vulnerable than Oplev’s, and we’ve only our culture to blame for that – American audiences want a vulnerable female.  Yes, she falls for Blomkvist in the novel, but you never get the sense that these two characters are destined to be a married couple, nor that Lisbeth would want that.  You can easily chalk it up to the fact that with her personal issues and emotional obsessions, Lisbeth can’t even stand the fact that Blomkvist associates with another woman, but I guess that’s my fundamental problem right there: it shouldn’t need “chalking up.”  The intention should be obvious.

Daniel Craig’s performance is surprisingly understated, and I respect the fact that Fincher had him playing the actual character instead of relying on Craig’s name (not to mention his roster of characters, which seem to be the same character over and over) to sell the role.  Christopher Plummer is, as always, the sweet, grandfatherly old man, and provides us with characters as sympathetic as they come.  Whenever he cries in a movie, I get choked up.   Skarsgård is charming and seems like a real person, and even when he employs the Fallacy of the Talking Killer, there’s a reason for it.  As I’ve said about this story before, it’s not your garden-variety, plot-driven crime thriller.  This is something special.

Besides the big budget and the undeniably “clean” look of the film (as opposed to the grungy, quiet darkness of the original) and the abrupt change in Lisbeth’s emotional state, the only other standout problem is, as I suspected, the choice of Trent Reznor as composer.  He’s not Hans Zimmer; he’s the guy from Nine Inch Nails.  After an incredibly overlong, overbudgeted, James-Bond-type opening credits sequence, Reznor’s music still proves intrusive, often playing more loudly than the film dialogue.  A half hour into the film, though, this stops being a problem.  Either the music shifted gears or my brain toned it out.

As it is such a close adaptation, I suppose I’d agree with Swedish director Oplev’s reaction to the remake: “Why would they remake something when they can just go see the original?”  I have this reaction about 99% of remakes, especially those done by Hollywood.  On the other hand, this story is so real, so gritty, so believable and refreshingly different from every two-bit formula thriller staining the celluloid week after week, that I will not only let it go, I’ll support it.  I wouldn’t necessarily trust Fincher with one of my books (not that he’s asked), but I trust him with Lisbeth, for now.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011); written by Steven Zaillian, adapted from Stieg Larsson’s novel; directed by David Fincher; starring Rooney Mara, Daniel Craig and Christopher Plummer.