Review – Skyfall

Phones, alcoholic beverages, a fragrance – even an entire Sky Channel has been created to honour James Bond in what is a historic year for the British spy. I have been a Bond fan as far back as I can remember and hotly anticipated the new film – yet what I was confronted with was somewhat different to what I expected. Did that make me feel bad about it? Well…

Review – Skyfall

2012, 143 mins, 12A, Dir. Sam Mendes, starring Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem and Naomie Harris.

Skyfall

There’s a moment at the very beginning of Skyfall that assures you that you’re in the right place. A character enters the frame, far away and very out of focus, and yet the brief burst of music tells you exactly who it is. And in the ensuing chase scene in Istanbul, once he has driven a motorbike through the Grand Bazaar, that character narrowly makes a jump from one train carriage to the next, immediately adjusting his cufflink as he straightens himself. Ladies and gentlemen. James Bond is back.

As an attack is made on MI6 and the names of undercover agents posted on the internet, M finds her position under threat while secrets from her past begin to surface. Bond has to track down the source of the attack and neutralise it, while also trying to save his position as a double-O agent. 

The story is strikingly and unusually personal to both Bond and M, and it is by far the most mature Bond we’ve ever had. Sam Mendes gives us everything we would expect from the franchise – cars, bullets, explosive action, exotic women, even the odd double entendre – but also so much more. It is daring in its emotional exploration of Bond, in its introduction of M as a major character, and in its pacing. It cannot be denied that this is a Sam Mendes film, and yet it is so quintessentially Bond. The action sequences are really quite spectacular, and what’s more, you can tell what’s going on! Unlike the constantly shaking camera of its predecessor, Skyfall takes a restrained look at the action, and the film, with the help of cinematographer Roger Deakins, does look absolutely beautiful, particularly in the fight in Shanghai, a swirling scene of bright neon colours and silhouettes.

Daniel Craig as… well, you know who it is.

Skyfall also triumphs in its villain. As Silva, Javier Bardem has a creepy haircut and an even creepier manner, trying to unsettle Bond on their first meeting – if his proposition fails to scare Bond, then it certainly scares the audience. What makes him work other than Bardem’s truly brilliant performance is the character’s constant stepping-ahead of MI6 – he is a formidable villain of the computer age, a hacker, not bent on world destruction, but on something different entirely.

With a bigger role, and with a lot more to say, Judi Dench shines as M. She retains her fierce banter with OO7 and yet shows emotional depth when confronted with her past ‘sins’. Her relationship with Bond is one of the film’s main themes and one of the main reasons why it succeeds; Daniel Craig is equally impressive, not just in the physical sense as we would expect, but in indicating that there is more to his character than we might believe. It’s weighty stuff, and they pull it off.

But above all, Skyfall represents a return to the classic era of Bond, even within the guise of a more modern setting. Adele’s theme tune is powerful and melodic, unlike the thudding failure that was ‘Another Way to Die’. The Aston Martin DB5 shows up to a great fanfare, and Ben Whishaw appears as the new (and very good) Q. Jokes are made in both of these instances about the car’s gadgets and of Q’s young age – the film is smart and self-knowing despite the seriousness of the story. And it is also very British. Bond’s patriotism is often commented on, and the London locations were certainly very familiar; OO7’s pursuit of Silva both in Whitehall and in a crowded tube station was exhilarating to watch.

James Bond with the Aston Martin DB5

Skyfall emerges from the financial troubles of MGM as a confident and mature return for the British spy. It is well-written and acted, and has a more artistic and restrained sensibility whilst never abandoning the explosions and gunfire that make the Bond films so recognisable. Sam Mendes’ direction of the story and of the characters makes this film utterly unique, and while I don’t want to ruin what happens right at the end, I think it’s safe to say that I can hardly wait without strangling someone for the next film in the series. Welcome back, OO7.

9/10

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The London 2012 Olympic Ceremony

The greatest sporting event created by man (who else?) is in London. Right now. After years and years of planning, construction, and politicians grappling with annoyed transport workers and miserable cohorts of the British public, the capital of England (and perhaps of the world) is now home to the summer Olympics. I’m immensely excited about everything that’s going on in my hometown, even if at the time of writing my country has only got one medal. And a couple of days ago we were treated to a spectacular piece of television that was not quite enough to rival the ambitious antics of the Chinese four years earlier, but certainly something that would make us feel proud – the London Olympics Opening Ceremony, directed by none other than Danny Boyle.

The Opening Ceremony at the London Olympic Park

I was in Cornwall when it actually happened but managed to watch a recording the next day (which nonetheless allowed me to skip past the LONG parade of participating countries). It certainly seemed to be unlike any opening ceremony that came before it. Although it didn’t quite have the ‘massed choreography of the entire chinese army‘ (Charlie Higson, Twitter) it was a bold, beautiful, and supremely funny show that prompted a positive global reaction. It began by showing an intriguing part of our history, when the industrial revolution ruined the kind of small rural village ideals glimpsed in the first few minutes. Huge towers not unlike those in Ikea in Croydon rose up from the floor as smoke billowed above the stadium, and a sideburned Kenneth Branagh grinned and recited some Shakespeare (who could have expected that?). The drummers in their thousands pounded loudly and men in top hats and suits danced and saluted the new industry – it was an intense and fantastic opening, but it was only going to get better.

The Industrial Revolution

The next thing we knew, Daniel Craig was riding in a London Taxi to Buckingham Palace, getting out and ascending a carpeted staircase. As he went into an ornately fashioned room, he cleared his throat and Queen Elizabeth II, 85 years old, turned round instantly. ‘Good evening, Mr. Bond’, she declared, before following him out of the room and into a helicopter. Off they rode to the Olympic stadium, and then they jumped out, parachutes decorated with the Union Jack, while the James Bond theme blared throughout the stadium. Obviously the Queen didn’t actually do that, but the fact that she was game enough to star in the pre-made film proved this to be one of the greatest parts of the evening, and as I was catapulted back to my youth, largely spent watching James Bond films, a broad smile extended across my face. It was one of those moments which highlighted London’s Opening Ceremony as a very different one, one that wouldn’t take itself as seriously as those preceding it, which is what made it truly special.

The rest of the evening was filled with spectacles that were undoubtedly British. The NHS was celebrated with real doctors and nurses dancing to a toe-tapping beat, while children’s literature was also heralded as one of Britain’s great strengths, with J.K. Rowling reading a passage from J.M. Barrie’s ‘Peter Pan‘, as a large puppet-like Voldemort loomed over the audience. The forging of the 5 rings was a brilliant throwback to J.R.R. Tolkien, and the performance of none other than Mr. Bean during the Chariots of Fire scene left me nearly suffocated with laughter. One of the best parts for me was the montage of British music, throughout the ages. Music is so important in Boyle’s films, especially Trainspotting, and no expense was spared here – I loved spotting the Led Zeppelin, Beatles, Stones and Kinks songs that were played in the fast-moving celebration of our music culture. It was all so individual, so personal, so proud and so moving, and Paul McCartney’s performance of Hey Jude did NOT ruin the entire evening – 1. He’s 70 and 2. He’s a Beatle. Stop complaining, all of you.

Mr. Bean aids in the theme to ‘Chariots of Fire’ – dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun

Anticipation continued to mount after the countries had finished parading – who was going to light the Olympic cauldron? We saw David Beckham, that national hero who did so much to bring the Olympics to London, carrying it in a boat along the Thames… promptly it was passed on to Sir Steve Redgrave, who brought it into the stadium. Then, we were greeted with one of the greatest surprises of the night – several up-and-coming athletes, only notified of what they were doing a week before, carrying the torch each in around the stadium. It showed that Britain was committed to carrying its next generation on its shoulders and was a very touching, warm moment as these seven young people lit the ‘flame of unity’.

The seven promising athletes wait to be given the flame by Sir Steve Redgrave.
The Flame of Unity is lit.

So if there’s one thing (or in fact, several) that could be taken from the night, it was this: that Britain has a very proud sense of humour and is not afraid to display it. It also showed the dramatic idiosyncrasies of the UK in general, with self-referential gags and a healthy sense of the absurd carried throughout. We may not quite have reached the heights of China four years ago, but do we really need to? Danny Boyle has crafted an intelligent, visually stunning show that has broken records in terms of Olympic viewership in both Britain and the USA, and acted as a brilliant leeway into all the events that are happening over the next two weeks. The only things I have left to say are, ‘Go Team GB!’, and ‘Danny Boyle for a knighthood?’

 

Bond on blu-ray

The twenty-two James Bond films, from Dr. No to Quantum of Solace, from Connery to Craig, comprise my entire childhood. I can still remember that fateful day when as a young child I purchased a VHS tape of The Spy Who Loved Me from a market whilst on holiday in Durham, and that equally fateful day when I decided to watch it. Instantly I was filled with exciting images of car chases, dastardly villains, gunshots, brilliant theme tunes, more explosions than you could shake a stick at and the coolest spy ever committed to celluloid; in fact, six incarnations of him! I became an avid fan and set to work on viewing each of Bond’s numerous outings.

Nobody does it better.

Eventually there came a long hiatus when my VHS tapes suddenly became redundant and DVD rolled in. I didn’t watch a Bond film for three, perhaps four years, until Casino Royale exploded into cinemas. I thoroughly enjoyed the modern take on Ian Fleming’s first novel featuring the iconic spy, but hated its follow-up, Quantum of Solace, and thus another hiatus took place. It wasn’t until this year that I ultimately sat down in front of my television with a recorded Dr. No on my DVD-TV hard drive and indulged myself in classic Bond.

Dr. No

It was just brilliant. I loved every second of it; I may have preferred Roger Moore when I was eight years old, but I can now safely say that Sean Connery is Bond. There’s simply no argument about it. The film was exciting enough with its double-crossing characters and classic action set-pieces, but re-watching the film came a realisation. As a child, I had asked my mother: “Why is there a woman in every Bond film? Surely there’s got to be one that doesn’t have a woman.” I still haven’t found one, but Ursula Andress’ quite famous entrance from the Caribbean sea delighted me as I saw a side of Bond that I hadn’t quite noticed before. The oft-cited expression “The men want to be him… the woman just want him” suddenly made sense; I enjoyed the film even more than I did when I first watched it.

Ursula Andress' immortal entrance into film history

It is with this very personal introduction, therefore, that I address Metro Goldwyn-Mayer. I’ve wanted to rediscover the Bond films for a long time but the recent selected release of Blu-rays has prompted me to be patient. This is what was recently released in shops:

Features Dr. No, From Russia With Love, Thunderball, For Your Eyes Only, Live and Let Die and Die Another Day

Fair enough; certain Bond films such as Goldfinger have been released individually. But what a weird choice for a boxset. For Your Eyes Only? Die Another Day? Surely not classic Bond outings. What aggravates me the most is that while not all the films have yet been released, reviews suggest that the ones already out look absolutely astonishing on blu-ray. This is what stops me from getting a DVD boxset, yet I’ve been waiting for too long. This message is to you, MGM studios, put in large font for more of an effect:

My guess is they’ll release them in a big boxset next year for the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. No (and the release of the new film, Skyfall, which has the new Q!), but that’s still too long. I want to rediscover the thrill of Goldfinger, the mystery of Live and Let Die and the brilliant set-pieces of The Spy Who Loved Me in their full glory. Some of the greatest films ever made are Bond films. I honestly cannot wait another day.

Review – The Adventures of Tintin

I managed to get free tickets to a preview screening of the film – read my slightly average review below:

Produced by Peter Jackson and directed by none other than Steven Spielberg himself, everyone knew that a Tintin movie (the rights of which the director has held since 1983) was going to be a big deal. The series of comics by revered Belgian writer Hergé, the first written in 1929, have been a global success, showered with praise and translated into more than 80 languages worldwide, while the most dedicated fans often brand themselves “Tintinologists”. It will therefore come as a huge relief for many that Spielberg’s motion-captured homage to the plucky red-haired hero is funny, cinematically impressive and intensely difficult not to like.

Jackson had previously convinced Spielberg that filming Tintin in live action would not do the comics justice. When watching the film, one has to agree. The motion-capture technology brings Tintin to life. It’s admirable how seriously Hergé’s animated world is taken, from the detail of the characters to the cartoonish action sequences. One stunning scene takes place in a Moroccan town where Tintin chases down three small pieces of paper vital to his investigation – he loses Haddock in a sidecar (who had just blown a water dam to bits with a bazooka) and ends up zip-lining down a telephone wire on the remaining wheel of a motorbike. That’s a tiny fraction of what happens, but the impressive thing is that a large amount of this scene takes place in a single shot. It’s animated with visual flair, colour and virtuosity and is a return for Spielberg to the films he made in the 1970s and 1980s. It’s by far his most entertaining film since Jurassic Park.

The characters are done very well. Haddock, played by Andy Serkis is alcoholic and delusional; Tintin (Jamie Bell), every strand of his trademark quiff blowing in the wind, is as adventurous as the books make him out to be; and Thompson and Thomson (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost), hilariously incompetent, provide great comic relief. There have been obvious problems in terms of “dead eyes” in motion capture (exemplified by the rather creepy Polar Express and Beowulf) but Tintin doesn’t suffer from this. In fact, when adapting

Tintin and Snowy

from a series of pictures in which character eyes are black dots, the filmmakers do surprisingly well in making Tintin, Haddock and others look more human. Character movements are smooth and appear natural; occasionally I thought I was watching live action.

The Adventures of Tintin is pure fun. In fact, it’s a visual treat that despite minor flaws (a drawn-out ending, flat 3D) is one of the best films I’ve seen this year, encompassing a glorious world, constantly funny jokes and impressive action set-pieces. Go and watch it. You won’t regret it.

4 stars out of 5