James Bond: Skyfall part 2

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Skyfall is easily the most elegantly directed Bond movie. Bond movies date back to the early ’60s, the tail end of the “big producer” era, and EON Productions, which has produced Bond from the beginning, retains its hold on the stylistic choices made.  No actor, no director is a bigger “star” than James Bond.  It’s rare to see any kind of point of view from behind the camera.  Bond movies are generally directed by skilled journeymen, directors who can organize a complicated set, deal well with actors, juggle egos, make their days and not go over budget.  I remember watching Die Another Day with James Urbaniak, and him mentioning that he couldn’t remember seeing a less-intentional directorial style, and I feel like Die Another Day is actually one of the more stylish of Bond movies.  Skyfall‘s direction is not merely skillful and elegant, but has a specific point of view.  Spielberg, Scorsese and Tarantino have all mentioned wanting to make a Bond movie, and while I think the ship has sailed for those guys, I wonder if perhaps we’re approaching the point where a genuine stylist might be invited to put their stamp on the biggest franchise in history.

(Skyfall benefits not only from Sam Mendes’s direction, but also from the Coenesque team of Roger Deakins as DP and Dennis Gassner as production designer, surely the greatest artists working in those jobs today.  Indeed, apart from Ken Adam, I can’t identify more talented people to have ever worked on a Bond movie.)

The “Bond title sequence” has been a feature of that franchise from the very beginning.  Maurice Binder, who constructed all the titles from Dr. No to License to Kill, has to be counted as one of the most influential artists of the 20th century.  Here we are, fifty years later, still trying to top him at the game he invented.  Skyfall‘s titles acquit themselves very well — lush, evocative, thematically dense, telling the story of the movie in dream symbols.  One of my readers suggested yesterday that Skyfall is perhaps all in Bond’s mind as he plunges to the bottom of the river in Turkey, and the titles certainly suggest it.  The swirling hole that swallows Bond up at the top of the sequence suggests the rifled gun barrel that has been Bond’s logo from the beginning, suggesting that Bond isn’t merely drowning in a river, but drowning in his past.  “The past” has haunted James Bond at least since Diamonds Are Forever, and Bond movies have been referring to themselves since From Russia With Love.  Bond has been trotting around the world for fifty years now, aging, then becoming young again, then aging again, sometimes keeping in touch with past selves, sometimes throwing those past selves.  To me, it’s weird enough that Daniel Craig shares an M with Pierce Brosnan, since Craig is a definite reboot, but the repeating M only scratches the surface of the weird temporality that Bond inhabits.

But we’re here to talk about the screenplay.

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James Bond: Skyfall part 1

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Often, a cinematic narrative resolves into a family dynamic.  Soldiers become brothers, teachers become parents, animals become children.  Family dynamics are useful to get at what makes stories universal.  Not many people know what it’s like to hunt a shark, but everyone knows what it’s like to be stuck in house with squabbling siblings.  That’s often our “way in” to the narrative.  Few movies, let alone few spy movies, go ahead and make the family dynamic the foreground of the narrative, but Skyfall does, and by so doing it does something to James Bond that has never really been done before: make him a character.  Or, as my 11-year-old son puts it, it makes him interesting.

Longtime readers of this journal will know that a few years ago I did a sketchbook analysis of all the James Bond movies.  When I started, I was largely unfamiliar with the character — I’d missed every Bond movie from Moonraker to Goldeneye and had only seen Goldfinger before that.  Bond as a character was ever elusive to me, he never seemed like a person, more of a list of attributes: tuxedo, car, gun, gambling, martini, babes.  He seemed closer to a model than a person.  We knew how he would behave but we didn’t know who he was, and, since we knew he’d survive every adventure, we knew there was never really anything at stake for him.  He murdered people, gave a quip and a cockeyed smile, and moved on.  How appropriate that Skyfall begins with a shot of Bond literally coming into focus.  After fifty years it’s a long time coming.

Skyfall has four acts.  Act I involves Bond’s “death” and “resurrection,” his training, assignment and departure into the world.  Act II involves the steps required to fulfill his mission and is divided into three sections recognizable by locale: Shanghai, Macau and Bad Guy Island.  At the end of Act II, Bond has captured the Bad Guy and brought him back to London.  Act III takes place entirely in London and involves the Bad Guy escaping and the flourishing of the family dynamic, and Act IV literally takes Bond home, to Scotland and a last reckoning.

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Some thoughts on Quantum of Solace

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I will have to wait for the DVD release of Quantum of Solace to issue a full analysis — I’m not afraid to admit that I didn’t understand a lot of it the first time around. The key question of my Bond analysis – “What does James Bond actually do to save the world?” is still a little vague for me twelve hours after watching the movie. I know he goes to a whole bunch of places and kills a whole bunch of people while on the trail of this Dominic Greene character, but I’m not exactly sure why he’s doing it and I’m not exactly sure how he’s going about it. If I had watched Casino Royale earlier in the morning I would probably be better oriented, and if you have that kind of leisure time at your disposal I recommend doing so — a number of key plot-points revolve around things that happen in the earlier movie.

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Casino Royale (2006)

(For those coming in late, I’ve been watching all the James Bond movies in order. You may read my other Bond pieces here.)

As this is a recent movie, I’m going to go ahead and say SPOILER ALERT.

James Bond is one cold bastard. He’s recently been promoted to “double-O” status — I may have missed what he was before that. Was he a “regular-O” agent? Did he have a license to hurt? What was he doing for MI6 before they decided he would make good assassin material? Whatever it was, M seems to have a good eye for talent — Bond seems to enjoy killing people almost more than he enjoys boinking the ladies. He’s also young, untried, cocky, reckless, bossy, impatient, quick on his feet and more physical than any five previous Bonds put together.

I’m old enough to remember that there was once a great movie star named Steve McQueen, and I’m also old enough to remember that the Bond people once seriously considered casting him as Bond. Steve McQueen was, of course, demonstrably Not British, but Daniel Craig not only bears a startling resemblance to McQueen, but also plays the part much in the way I imagine McQueen would have — human-scaled, silent and strong outside, vulnerable and unprepared inside. It’s the first truly multidimensional portrait of Bond we’ve ever seen, and Craig is, I would have to say, devastating in the part. I liked Connery, I liked a couple of the Moore pictures and I loved Brosnan, but Craig is playing a whole different ball game here. More on why this works later.That said, it’s a little weird to see Bond be born again again at this late date. It didn’t trouble Pierce Brosnan that he was both 35 years old and a relic of the cold war. It didn’t concern Roger Moore that women young enough to be his daughter were falling for him as though hypnotized. But it seems that somewhere between Die Another Day and Casino Royale there was some kind of Bond-backstory event, a “Crisis of Infinite Bonds” perhaps, and it was deemed necessary to pretend that the other 20 movies never happened. Most of which serves Casino Royale very well indeed.

WHAT DOES THE BAD GUY WANT? One of the many new-to-Bondworld innovations in Casino Royale is the nature of the bad guy. Le Chiffre (“The Number” or, more literally, “The Figure,” both things are of importance to the world of Casino Royale) has the least megalomaniacal and most human scheme of all Bond villains in history. His devious, world-ending plot involves not a giant space-laser or a scheme to blow up Fort Knox or the theft of two nuclear weapons.  He doesn’t have a gigantic subterranean lair or a secret labratory or a fluffy white cat.  His nefarious plot involves nothing more than short-selling some stock and then winning a high-stakes poker game. Sounds like an average day at Bear Stearns, if you ask me. Of course, his stock-selling scheme involves the dramatic blowing-up of an airplane, but even then he sets his sights low — the plane is empty, and parked on the ground. This is truly a new style of Bond villain — not a monster, not a sadist, not a deformed freak — well, not much anyway — he is, gasp, recognizably human, which is something that extends to the rest of Casino Royale.

Le Chiffre, it seems, is an investment banker for bad guys. He takes the money of an African warlord and uses it in this short-selling scheme. When Bond foils the airplane-blowing-up part of the plan, Le Chiffre has to figure out how to get the African warlord’s money back — hence the high-stakes poker game. He doesn’t dream of world domination, he’s a desperate man in debt to some very bad people. It’s even weirder that he dies at the end of Act III — in a four-act movie — but more on why that all ends upworking later.

WHAT DOES JAMES BOND ACTUALLY DO TO SAVE THE WORLD? Bond kills a double agent at the beginning of the movie — two, actually, if you count the one in the flashback. Wait! What? A flashback? Since when does a James Bond movie have a flashback? Next thing you know, there will be exotic cinematic techniques showing up all over Bond movies, rack zooms and parallel action and shaky-cams and sunburst flares. Is nothing sacred with these heartless bastards?

Anyway, so Bond kills a pair of double agents before the titles roll, one of whom is actually a Brit — another first for the Bond series, if I’m not mistaken (Jonathan Pryce doesn’t count — he was playing an Australian). Next he goes to Madagascar, on the trailer of a bomb-maker. After a stupefying chase at a construction site, a scene of endless leaps, falls, punches, dives and gunplay, he tails the bomb-maker to an embassy, which he promptly destroys. (I swear, Bond exerts himself more in the first 20 minutes of Casino Royale than he does in the totality of Dr. No, From Russia With Love and Goldfinger.)

M, angry with Bond for blowing up the embassy, throws him off the case. Does Bond comply? Yes. He does. He spends the rest of the movie relaxing and hanging out with his buds. No, wait, no he doesn’t — he ignores M’s orders and goes to the Bahamas to try to find whoever the Madagascar bomb-maker was working for.

The Madagascar bomb-maker was working for a d-list villain named Dimitrios. Dimitrios functions essentially the same way a movie producer does, bringing together talent (bomb-makers) and money (Le Chiffre) (all puns intended). Dimitrios has a wife, and Bond seduces the wife to get to the guy. He trails Dimitrios to Miami, where he contacts another bomb-maker just in time to make Le Chiffre’s deadline for blowing up a parked airplane. Bond, as I say, spoils the airplane-blowing-up deal and then enters the high-stakes poker game to make sure Le Chiffre doesn’t make his money back. The plan is that, once broke and desperate, Le Chiffre will turn himself over to MI6 and spill all he knows about his shadowy employers.

Huh. You know, now that I’m looking at it spelled out like that, this plot seems to actually seems to resemble something amazingly like intelligence work. You’ve got terrorists and financiers, you’ve got people who blow up stuff for stock swindles through complicated plausibly-deniable contacts, you’ve got undercover agents and cell-phone traces — by jiminy if that doesn’t sound convincingly real. What the hell are they doing to my movie franchise?! Why, not once does Le Chiffre say to a henchman “Find him and kill him.”

Once Le Chiffre is beaten, he comes to Bond’s side and gladly, gratefully even, turns himself in. Oh wait, no, I’m sorry, what I meant to say is he kidnaps Bond and his girlfriend, tortures them both, then gets shot in the head by his shadowy employers.

And, bizarrely, the movie isn’t over yet. Bond takes himself, the poker money and his MI6-accountant girlfriend to Venice, where he learns, too late, that the girlfriend is (reluctantly) in league with the bad guys. Upon learning this, he takes the only logical course of action — he destroys a Venetian building and kills a bunch of people. Then he tracks the shadowy employer (“Mr. White” — doesn’t sound very shadowy to me, and I for one was very disappointed that, with a name like that, he was not played by Harvey Keitel) to, I’m gonna say Switzerland, and shoots him in the leg.

Whew! What a workout for Bond in this, his longest movie ever. And, I would have to check my notes, but I’m gonna say that this is also the most complicated of Bond plots, although Live and Let Die would probably come a close second. And yet, Casino Royale never feels labored or dense — it flies along through a mid-movie plot shift, an abrupt and improbable love story and a very long poker game (for the record, we see exactly three actual hands of poker in that game, interrupted by two fist-fights, two deaths, four dress shirts, a poisoning, and a heart-re-starting).

WOMEN: There are two women of note in Casino Royale. Three things tie them together thematically — they both make love to Bond, they both are tied to men absurdly below their station (one has a unibrow, the other wears sunglasses with only one dark lens — how bargain-basement Bond Villain could you get?! Dude, you’re Bond Villains, can’t you get a metal skull or prehensile toes or something? Oo-ah, look at me, I’ve only got one dark lens on my glasses! Fear Me!), and they both wind up dead.

Eva Green as Vesper Lynd has the heaviest lifting to do — she shows up halfway through the movie and has to go from “I couldn’t care less about James Bond” to “Omigod, I just totally saw a bunch of guys get freakin’ killed!” to “Help! I’ve been kidnapped!” to “I think I love James Bond after all” to “I am tragically, hopelessly screwed up and don’t want to live any longer” in an hour and fifteen minutes, interrupted by poker hands and killings and emergency medical procedures and car-crashes and torturings and mass destruction. And Craig has to believably answer her.

Guess what? For the most part the love story totally works. I don’t exactly buy a couple of scenes, but not only does Vesper Lynd count as the first Bond Girl with more than two or three attributes to play, but the love story comes off as the first credible one of the series. Lynd doesn’t just fall into Bond’s arms, he has to work at earning her trust, and then her lust. The early scenes of the two of them giddy about their high-stakes adventure are smashing, and I wish they went on for longer. I especially like the scene about the tux, where Bond objects to the one she’s picked out and they argue about fashion. (I’ve only seen high-stakes poker games on ESPN, and I would have loved — loved — to see Bond come swanning into the poker room in his tailored tux to find a table full of guys who look like this.

HOW COOL IS THE BAD GUY? Le Chiffre has a scar on his eye and weeps blood. That’s pretty cool, but the filmmakers seemed to feel that only one minor physical deformity for their bad guy would be short-changing their audiences, so they’ve also given him asthma. Asthma! How the hell are we supposed to be scared of a guy with asthma? Why not a cleft palate or webbed toes? Le Chiffre overcomes his lame disability with style however, and stands as one of the most compelling bad guys of the series, in spite of the fact that he doesn’t even get a cool, spectacular death at the hands of Bond.

NOTES: I dislike the title sequence for this movie,and I don’t care much for the song either, although it’s growing on me. I like the animation, but Bond firing hearts out his gun and punching bad guys into shattering animated diamonds strikes me as dire and lame.

I love the beat where the Madagascar bomb-maker throws his gun a Bond and Bond catches it and throws it back. Was that in the script, worked out during the fight choreography, or improvised on the set?

Due, apparently, to budget cuts at MI6, M no longer has a Moneypenny to flirt with Bond, so she must take on the job herself. I applaud Dame Judy Dench’s playing of these scenes and look forward to some hot Craig-on-Dench scenes in a future installment.

I like his car, and I like very much the spectacular crash that ends its life, but I can’t for the life of my figure out why they would put a defibrillator in the glove compartment.

Giancarlo Giannini, I’m happy to report, survived getting disemboweled, hanged and thrown out a window by Hannibal Lecter, and shows up as some Italian guy who may or may not be a good guy.  His and Felix Leiter’s main roles in the movie seem to be explaining to the audience how Poker is played, revealing the meaning behind obscure terms like “stake” and “tell” (Felix: “I’ll stake you — that means I’ll put up the money for you to play.”  GG: “There’s his ‘tell!’ That’s how we know he’s bluffing!”) as though anyone walking in from the street to see a movie called Casino Royale would be ignorant of what actually happens inside a casino.

Jeffrey Wright is surely the greatest actor to ever play Felix Leiter and here’s to hoping he comes back for the next movie (although he is not listed as such.)  Geez, if the real Felix Leiter was as smart and efficient as Jeffrey Wright, 9/11 would never have happened.

After Bond is tortured by Le Chiffre, is it just my imagination or does he recuperate at a hospital located near Senator Amidala’s house on Naboo?  I kept expecting to have Bond look over to see Anakin Skywalker wooing his beloved with his killer lines about how she’s nothing like sand.

Act III of Casino Royale revolves around a poker game.  The filmmakers get around this action-movie non-starter by having the game constantly interrupted by fights, killings, showers, poisonings, and no less than four changes of clothes (six if you count Le Chiffre and Vesper).  After each one of these events, the characters in the movie go back to doing exactly what they were doing beforehand.  Most disappointing of these pulse-raising events is when the African warlord breaks into Le Chiffre’s hotel room and threatens his girlfriend’s arm with a machete.  He pulls his punch at the last second, and while I in no way wanted to see the girlfriend’s arm cut off, I was disappointed that the ruthless African warlord turned out to be ruthful after all.

I am also a little disappointed to see Bond relying so much on wireless technology (and I’d love to know if it’s actually possible to get a signal in the middle of the Laguna Veneta).  The second time Bond is interrupted in his love-making by a ringing cell-phone I expected him to throw it out the window.  The third time I expected him to shoot it.

What makes all this work?  The makers of Casino Royale seem to have made a decision early on in the process, one unprecedented in the franchise history.  That is, they decided to make a movie about James Bond.  Le Chiffre’s death at the hands of some guy who’s name we don’t even know, 3/4 of the way through the movie, works because the movie isn’t about him, it’s about Bond.  The love story, absurdly complex by Bond standards, works because the movie isn’t about sex or conquest or gadgets or style or violence, it’s about this guy and his, you know, character.  Get this — when this Bond kills a couple of guys in a stairwell or gets thrown off a speeding truck?  He still has red marks on his face and hands in the next scene!  This Bond, amazingly, takes a moment to steady himself and think about what he’s doing before he heads into a dangerous situation.  Did Roger Moore ever take a moment to look at himself in a mirror and wonder if perhaps he’d made a wrong decision?  Can one imagine Sean Connery expressing gratitude to a woman for falling in love with him?

The script manages to pull off this feat without making Bond self-obsessed or self-pitying, and, indeed, without actually telling us very much about the character.  Other Bonds have been stylish and seductive and funny and charismatic, but this one is something like an actual human being, and, as every real filmmaker knows, there is nothing more intriguing than that.

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