Movies: SKYFALL


“Skyfall”, the new Bond, certainly takes more than one viewing to have all the nuances of its plot and references sink in. That’s my excuse anyway so that I can gleefully justify looking forward to seeing this, best of all Bonds, again.

Why best?

The theme of the movie (to which I’ll return) is about the need to balance the old with the new. “Skyfall’s” homage to fifty years of Bond does this with great panache. Let’s start with the action. Sam Mendes, this director who cut his teeth directing Shakespeare at the Royal Shakespeare company, gleefully let’s his inner bad boy loose here, right from the beginning:

The opening car chase at the start of “Quantum of Solace” was OK, nowhere near the high mark set by that opening foot chase that heralded Daniel Craig in “Casino Royale”. But in “Skyfall” the pre-credits excitement immediately gets the blood thumping with a frenzied motorcycle chase in Istanbul that leads us swirling down its twisting alleys, up ancient curving stone stairwells and then vertiginously along the rooftops of the city, crashing through into the heaving crowds of the Grand Bazaar. It’s a start that sets the tone for the things to come, whether in set-piece explosions – a glorious shot seen from street level of the inner sanctum of MI6 blowing up – or just mano a mano fights: Bond and one of a seemingly endless army of thugs slug it out on top of a moving train (apparently Daniel Craig did most of his stunts himself) as Bond tries to rescue stolen MI6 secrets.

Beyond the action, what helps set “Skyfall” apart from the other Bonds (thanks in no small part to Craig who can actually act) is the intensely personal story at the heart of the adventure. This is really a story centered on M. She, more than any of the passing beauties in the movie, is at its center. (Mendes must have realized that we had to see some of Bond’s love life in action to remind us of his virility, but it sure can slow a story down; so he simply gives the briefest of nods to a few cursory dalliances, and then its back to the plot). Judy Dench’s M is really the Bond girl of “Skyfall”. It’s her story – of her necessary hard-heartedness and the hard decisions she has to take, one of which leads to the loss of all the names of the NATO agents embedded in terrorist organizations, and which prompts a review of her capabilities (“Is she just too old any more?” the Whitehall mandarins, lead by an imperious Ralph Fiennes, question.)

It’s her hard-heartedness that is at the center of a brooding hatred that drives the story.

For, unlike all of the previous Bond’s, where 007 has been pit against megalomaniacs intent of wrecking global havoc, this is a very intimate story. It’s a story of an orphaned son lashing out against the rejection of his substitute mother and seeking catharsis in revenge. Silva, like Bond is an orphan; like Bond he has been the apple of mother M’s eye; and like Bond, he has been sacrificed for a higher good (Bond is ‘killed’ at the beginning in M’s wrong-headed decision to try to secure the stolen files). But unlike Bond, Silva is out for revenge… against MI6 and against M. And what a grand baddie Javier Badem as Silva, makes.

Javier channels the twin demons of Heath Ledger’s Joker and his own killer in “No Country for Old Men” to introduce some real old fashioned evil to the franchise. With hair dyed blond (a nicely symbolic dark side to Craig’s blondness) and with a sort of demented grin, Badem’s Silva summons the forces of darkness with soft spoken menace. You really don’t want to meet him on a dark night. He’s the uber existentialist threat – the danger from within. He is the inside operator gone bad, turned into a killer for hire and using an insider’s knowledge to rip the organization apart.

And “Skyfall” poses the question – what sort of policing skills do you need to feel safe in today’s world? For the idea of the movie presents us with this dichotomy of the values of tradition and the old v modernity and the strengths of the new. Bond, M, and the way MI6 works are being attacked in Whitehall for representing an old fashioned, traditional past world, one that isn’t built to take on the new terrors – the dark world of dangerous digerati. Indeed, Bond himself is constantly referred to as old (the producers must be well aware that Daniel Craig – this particular gold egg laying goose – isn’t himself getting any younger). But as M points out to one of those interminable politically motivated investigative committees, there’s a world of (old fashioned) shadows out there; and those are the ones that the likes of Mr. Bond must live in and conquer.

So we’re offered the world of the new (Bond’s new Walther PPK is coded to his palm print that that only he can use it… “Less of a random killing machine,” Q says, “more of a personal statement”) and the old (in the end it’s a simple knife that makes, as it were the final cut). We see the newest of the world’s glittering cities (Shanghai) contrasted with Silva’s lair – a decrepit, decaying wreck of an abandoned city on an island somewhere on the South China Sea. And what helps propel the story along so marvelously is Sam Mendes’ reintroduction (so curiously underplayed in the first two of this new Bond reboot) of the traditional Monty Norman/ John Barry signature music, those stirring muscular full throated martial notes that complement the mayhem on screen. (Indeed, Adele’s hauntingly sad song is an overt reminder to the ever memorable Shirley Bassy melodies of “Goldfinger” and “Diamonds are Forever”. Does anyone remember the tune for “Casino Royale”?).

More than just the old music, Mendes balances his new fashioned take on a more personal story, with a liberal does of those icons and images of the past that have made Bond, Bond. Right from the get-go in the familiar montage of images that accompany all Bond beginning credits, we get a nod to the “Man With The Golden Gun” as we see Bond in a hall of reflecting mirrors. He of course dies at the beginning, and as he did in “From Russia With Love” (it was a fake with a mask) and “You Only Live Twice” (when he was shot out to RIP underwater). We all know that Bond will live to “Die another Day”. He leaps over a komodo dragon as he did (with alligators in “Live and Let Die”) and, we’re reintroduced with the famous DB5, which we first saw in “Goldfinger”. Its gadgets still work – Bond jokingly threatens to eject M from the seat and he uses its machine guns nicely to cut down a throng of anonymous killers (did you know that DB refers to David Brown who ran the Aston Martin company from 1947-1972?). We’re also (re)introduced to Q – Ben Whishaw (representing “the new”) and Ms Moneypenny.

And, fittingly, as all those old Connery Bond movies did, it ends with the thrilling words, “… Bond will return…”

 

 

Movies – Beasts of the Southern Wild


“Beasts of the Southern Wild” is a strange, engrossing movie – a sort of Terrence Malick without the pretentiousness.

From the first frame, Director Ben Zeitlin plunges us deep into a bizarre post-apocalyptic looking world called the Bathtub, somewhere on the wrong side of the New Orleans levee, beyond the reach of civilization. There, a community of poor, black and white communities – the eponymous ‘beasts’ – live in squalid dilapidation, looking out for and loving each other through upturned bottles of beer and southern hooch.

The story turns on the advent of a Katarina type storm approaching the Delta; a storm we are lead to believe that presages the even bigger climate change storm approaching the earth. It is the subsequent encroach of policing, incarcerating civilization urging these almost prelapsarian residents into shelter that brings into focus the movies themes: the need to balance self-reliance with the help of community; of escapism (they’re drunk most of the time) with the importance to facing down your own demons (here dramatized by imaginary prehistoric wild boars, called aurochs). It’s all seen through the eyes of a young girl, Hushpuppy.

This is (relative) newcomer, Quvenzhane Wallis, who gives a touching and commanding performance as a resourceful and resolute child (self-reliance) in need of tenderness and care (community).

Hushpuppy’s father (Dwight Henry, another newcomer) is Wink, a man as rough and untamed as the place they inhabit. He, like the earth, is stricken with some sort of blood polluting illness from which there is no escape. Indeed, it is the start of his illness that seems to herald a shift in the climate, in the balance of things, as Hushpuppy points out in her wise narrative. His debilitation, and his valiant attempts to hide it and to resist it signal the bigger theme of the inevitability of the apocalypse over which sterile civilization really has no control.

The joy in a movie like this (I’m glad I resisted the urge to see “Taken 2” instead) is its fecundity ideas and the issues it gives rise to. Good as a pre-dinner date for the conversation that will inevitably follow.

MOvies: End of Watch


“End of Watch” is an Oscar-worthy movie with an Oscar-worthy performance by Jake Gyllenhall as Brian Taylor, a young LAPD officer. The story is – deliberately – commonplace, in that you’ve seen it all before. Two cops cruising the mean streets together; lots of buddy talk; a few arrests and chases here and there; and a final confrontation with really evil bad guys, who are, naturally running drugs.

David Ayer, who wrote and directed it, and who also gave us the Oscar winning “Training Day” with Denzell Washington, uses the familiarity of the cop story format as a base to build from and to weave his themes in and out of.

He brings a stunning naturalness to the directing and dialog, much of which feels so real, I can only assume there must have been a certain amount of ad libbing throughout. Ayer uses the conceit of a film within a film to add verisimilitude to the flow: we see incidents from a variety of amateur recorded angles – the in-camera viewpoint of the police cruiser the two principals (Gyllenhall and Michael Pena, who we saw in “Million Dollar Baby” and the under-estimated “Lincoln Lawyer”) ride all night in, a hand-held camera Brian (Gyllenhall) uses for some college project he’s working on, spy cameras probing deep into the Sinaloa Drug cartel, even the dealers themselves are forever filming themselves, creating their own urban legends. This often gives the movie a feel of a home movie and it certainly drags the viewer deeper into a world of what Gyllenhall’s character refers to as all the food groups, “drugs, guns and money” than we’ve ever been. It’s as though Ayer is saying to us, you think you know, through glamorized Hollywood, the real world of what these cops do and the nastiness they’re exposed to everyday? Well, let me show you, babe!

And show us he does.

It’s a world of casual violence, drugged out mothers with their kids duck taped in cupboards, corpses, gun-fights… And yet, despite “the horror, the horror” we see through the eyes of our hero cops (and yes, they are our ‘hero’ cops), much of the stunningly scripted dialog is laugh out loud funny as these two, like an old couple, laugh, love, bicker and heckle each other.

The story is essentially about the idea of family: about how people bond and the responsibilities of loyalty and love. Pena is a proud – Mexican – dad and a faithful husband to the woman he met at school. Gyllenhall – to all extent Pena’s brother – is in search of a woman he can actually have a conversation with after the sex is over. The woman he meets, is the engaging Anna Kendrick (who was the young ingénue of “Up in the Air”).

As their relationship deepens, and as we see the two heroes both as cops and as real people (at the beginning Gyllenhall – presciently – tells us “we’re real people, we love, we bleed…”), their out of work world of warmth, love, caring and birthdays enfolds us even as the symbolic end of watch approaches with dread and deadly precision precision.