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The Greatest Rampage

 

The way we see a film can affect our perception of it. Ideal viewing circumstances can give us a fond memory of a mediocre piece of work. Poor viewing conditions can highlight the strengths of a film if it lets you forget where you are, or highlight the weaknesses if you do not. Such was the case with The Greatest Showman and Rampage, both of which I missed on their theatrical release and caught up with in somewhat unorthodox ways.

For the former, I attended my first Pop-Up Pictures event and saw The Greatest Showman outdoors, sitting on a deck chair with an appreciative but still respectful audience. As the evening wore on it became increasingly cold and I wished I had brought another layer. These far from ideal viewing conditions might have been overcome by a more engaging film, which proved to be the case at a Pop-Up Pictures screening of Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Unfortunately at The Greatest Showman, I found myself getting uncomfortable and not involved in the film. Various dramatic opportunities are missed, such as the significance of fabric and the treatment of those designated as ‘other’, be that due to class, race or physical difference. While the songs have subsequently proved fun to listen to, as part of the film they lack weight, which is a problem with the film overall. A lot of running back and forth fails to convey dramatic importance; tensions between P. T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman), Charity Barnum (Michelle Williams) and Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) is sorely lacking; romance between Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) and Anne Wheeler (Zendaya) is simplistic; the various other characters seem like sketches. Meanwhile, the set design smacks of artifice, and not in a way that suggests the film is making a point about performance and theatricality. In the end, it feels hollow and fake, as The Greatest Showman proves to be far less than the greatest show.

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RampageI watched on a train on a tablet, and enjoyed it immensely. This is despite the small viewing device, headphones and regular glare on the screen. Whereas The Greatest Showmanhas pretensions of grandeur that it never successfully meets, Rampageis exactly that – a non-stop, rollicking rampage in which giant animals break things. That is what it says on the tin and that is what you get in spades. I laughed, I cheered (quietly), I applauded (inside). The creature design is effective, director Brad Peyton balances action, plot and humour. All the performers play their roles exactly right, from the boo-hiss villains Claire and Brett Wyden (Malin Ackerman and Jake Lacey) to the maverick federal agent Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Playing the scientist who knows what’s going on, Dr Kate Caldwell, Naomie Harris keeps a commendably straight face throughout. As Davis Okoye, Dwayne Johnson balances his trademark wit, charm and charisma with genuine befuddlement over the increasingly ludicrous scenarios and a touching sense of friendship in his interactions with gorilla George (Jason Liles), that Davis talks to through sign language, and seeks to save even as George becomes larger and more destructive. This is the great strength of Rampagethat is sorely lacking in The Greatest Showman: have all the razzle-dazzle you like, but even CGI extravaganzas need a beating heart.

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89th Annual Academy Awards – Final Predictions

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With the Academy Awards now hours away, it’s time for final predictions. I’ve given my detailed views on some of the categories already, but now it’s time for the full list, including what I think will win, and what I would vote for were I a member of AMPAS (none of this ‘should win’ nonsense on my blog, thank you!).

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BEST PICTURE

Predicted winner: La La Land

Preferred winner: Arrival

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DIRECTING

  • Damien Chazelle, La La Land
  • Mel Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge
  • Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
  • Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea
  • Denis Villeneuve, Arrival

Predicted winner: Damien Chazelle

Preferred winner: Denis Villeneuve

With all its plaudits and despite its naysayers, La La Land looks set to pick up the big awards. I enjoyed the film fine, but do feel that others, including Manchester by the Sea and Hidden Figures, and especially Arrival, warrant as much if not more attention. So while I see La La Land dancing its way to Best Picture and Directing, my heart belongs to Arrival.

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ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE

  • Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
  • Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge
  • Ryan Gosling, La La Land
  • Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic
  • Denzel Washington, Fences

Predicted winner: Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea

Preferred winner: Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea

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ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

  • Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
  • Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water
  • Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea
  • Dev Patel, Lion
  • Michael Shannon, Nocturnal Animals

Predicted winner: Mahershala Ali, Moonlight

Preferred winner:  Michael Shannon, Nocturnal Animals

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ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE

  • Isabelle Huppert, Elle
  • Ruth Negga, Loving
  • Natalie Portman, Jackie
  • Emma Stone, La La Land
  • Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins

Predicted winner: Emma Stone, La La Land

Preferred winner: Emma Stone, La La Land (only one I’ve seen!)

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ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

  • Viola Davis, Fences
  • Naomie Harris, Moonlight
  • Nicole Kidman, Lion
  • Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures
  • Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea

Predicted winner: Viola Davis, Fences

Preferred winner: Viola Davis, Fences

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All the acting nominees I’ve seen were impressive, and I’d be happy with most of them winning. But it would make me very happy if Nocturnal Animals could pick up something.

WRITING (ADAPTED SCREENPLAY)

  • Arrival
  • Fences
  • Hidden Figures
  • Lion
  • Moonlight

Predicted winner: Moonlight

Preferred winner: Arrival

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WRITING (ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY)

  • Hell or High Water
  • La La Land
  • The Lobster
  • Manchester by the Sea
  • 20th Century Women

Predicted winner: Manchester by the Sea

Preferred winner: Hell or High Water

Tricky ones, but I think I’ve said my piece.

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CINEMATOGRAPHY

  • Arrival
  • La La Land
  • Lion
  • Moonlight
  • Silence

Predicted winner: La La Land

Preferred winner: Arrival

It is always tough to determine if this award will follow patterns, or rely solely on the skill of the Director of Photography nominated. In this case, much as I love Arrival and would like it to win, I anticipate the long takes and crane shots on location in La La Land will shimmy the film to another award.

COSTUME DESIGN

  • Allied
  • Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
  • Florence Foster Jenkins
  • Jackie
  • La La Land

Predicted winner: Jackie

Preferred winner: Jackie

This award typically goes to period films, for good reason, and all but one of these nominees is exactly that. For La La Land to win here would be a bit odd, colourful as the costumes in that film are. After its victories at BAFTA, the Awards Circuit Community Awards and the Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards, Jackie seems like a safe bet here.

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FILM EDITING

  • Arrival
  • Hacksaw Ridge
  • Hell or High Water
  • La La Land
  • Moonlight

Predicted winner: Arrival

Preferred winner: Arrival

This is an interesting one, as Hacksaw Ridge won the BAFTA but Arrival the Eddie (from the American Cinema Editors). I loved Arrival and found Hacksaw Ridge pretty good, and the potential overlap between the various institutions means this could go either way. But maybe Arrival will be this year’s Mad Max: Fury Road, picking up various post-production awards if none of the ‘major awards’. For that reason, I would like to see Arrival walk away with this award, and I believe it will.

MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING

Predicted winner: Star Trek Beyond

Preferred winner: Suicide Squad

I know nothing about A Man Called Ove, and the sheer range of weird and wonderful make up designs in Star Trek Beyond make it a likely winner. That said, I would like Suicide Squad to win, because I think the negativity this film received was excessive and it would greatly amuse me if the naysayers have to admit to the existence of ‘the Oscar-winning Suicide Squad’.

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MUSIC (ORIGINAL SCORE)

  • Jackie
  • La La Land
  • Lion
  • Moonlight
  • Passengers

Predicted winner: La La Land

Preferred winner: La La Land

MUSIC (ORIGINAL SONG)

  • ‘Audition (The Fools Who Dream),’ La La Land
  • ‘Can’t Stop the Feeling,’ Trolls
  • ‘City of Stars,’ La La Land
  • ‘The Empty Chair,’ Jim: The James Foley Story
  • ‘How Far I’ll Go, ‘ Moana

Predicted winner: ‘Audition (The Fools Who Dream),’ La La Land

Preferred winner: ‘Audition (The Fools Who Dream),’ La La Land

As a musical, it would be rather odd if La La Land did not win in these two categories. While I’m not the biggest fan of La La Land, I did find the solo ‘Audition’ to be very stirring (being one of those fools myself), and I would be happy to see that pick up an award.

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PRODUCTION DESIGN

  • Arrival
  • Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
  • Hail, Caesar!
  • La La Land
  • Passengers

Predicted winner: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Preferred winner: Arrival

An interesting collection here, with two science fiction films, one contemporary (and very colourful) musical, along with two period films, one which features fantasy elements and the other, like the musical, is about Hollywood. Due to its BAFTA victory, I see this going to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, although the nostalgia and self-love of La La Land and Hail Caesar! might bring them success. For me, the production design of Arrival was a key element to its eerie alienness, and something I would like to see rewarded.

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SOUND EDITING

  • Arrival
  • Deepwater Horizon
  • Hacksaw Ridge
  • La La Land
  • Sully

Predicted winner: Arrival

Preferred winner: Arrival

Back in 2013, there was a tie for this award between Skyfall and Zero Dark Thirty. Both were favourite films of mine, and Arrival was my top film of last year. So maybe the pattern will continue. I would also like my top film to win something, hence my pick.

SOUND MIXING

Predicted winner: Arrival

Preferred winner: Arrival

Since Arrival is unlikely to win anything else, I can see it picking up both Sound awards. And I want it to, so there.

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VISUAL EFFECTS

Predicted winner: The Jungle Book

Preferred winner: Doctor Strange

After winning the BAFTA as well as an Annie Award and the Awards Circuit Community Award (as well as others), The Jungle Book looks set to pick up the Oscar as well. Much as the animals and landscapes impressed me in The Jungle Book though, the inventiveness and outright trippiness of the visual effects in Doctor Strange had me (sorry) spellbound, and it gets my vote for most impressive visual effects of last year.

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ANIMATED FEATURE FILM

  • Kubo and the Two Strings
  • Moana
  • My Life as a Zucchini
  • The Red Turtle
  • Zootopia

Predicted winner: Kubo and the Two Strings

Preferred winner: Zootopia

Kubo and the Two Strings has done very well at previous award ceremonies such as BAFTA and multiple Critics associations, but Zootopia/Zootropolis was one of my favourites of last year, so it gets my vote. It did win the Golden Globe, so maybe Disney’s delightful comedy about prejudice and tolerance might just strike a chord with the Academy members, in this time of strife and division.

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FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM

  • Land of Mine, Denmark
  • A Man Called Ove, Sweden
  • The Salesman,Iran
  • Tanna, Australia
  • Toni Erdmann, Germany

Predicted winner: The Salesman, Iran

Preferred winner: The Salesman, Iran

The director of The Salesman, Asqhar Farhadi, has stated that he will not attend the Oscar ceremony in protest of President Trump’s policies. Whether Farhadi attends or not, as an act of defiance I hope that the Academy rewards the film, and I would too.

DOCUMENTARY (FEATURE)

  • Fire at Sea
  • I Am Not Your Negro
  • Life, Animated
  • OJ: Made In America
  • 13th

Predicted winner: 13th

Preferred winner: Life, Animated

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DOCUMENTARY (SHORT SUBJECT)

  • Extremis
  • 1 Miles
  • Joe’s Violin
  • Watani: My Homeland
  • The White Helmets

SHORT FILM (ANIMATED)

  • Blind Vaysha
  • Borrowed Time
  • Pear Cider and Cigarettes
  • Pearl
  • Piper

SHORT FILM (LIVE ACTION)

  • Ennemis Interieurs
  • La Femme Et Le TGV
  • Silent Nights
  • Sing
  • Timecode

Pass – I know nothing about these films.

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Moonlight

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The day before the Oscars, I saw the last of the Best Picture nominees, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, a haunting and soulful portrayal of a man coming to grips with his sexuality and identity. Nominated for eight awards, including Best Picture and Directing, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress, Moonlight has been described as the alternative to the likely Best Picture winner, La La Land. It is easy to see why and, while I enjoyed La La Land, I find Moonlight a more impressive piece of work overall. This is because Jenkins utilises a wide variety of cinematic elements to deliver a film that operates on a number of levels, rather than La La Land’s straightforward feelgood charm. Moonlight’s aesthetic varies from long takes, such as the opening sequence that is included in a single roving shot, to handheld shaky-cam footage and swift cuts as well as point of view subjective shots during conversation scenes. The array of performances in the film range from the cool yet comforting Juan (Mahershala Ali) to the grandstanding of Naomie Harris as drug-addicted mother Paula to the subtlety of Janelle Monáe as Juan’s girlfriend Teresa who takes pity on Paula’s unfortunate son, Chiron, the central character of the film. Played by three actors over the course of three chapters of his life – Alex Hibbert as the young Little, Ashton Sanders as teenager Chiron and Trevante Rhodes as adult Black – Chiron’s life is presented in subtle but never unclear terms. His dismay over his mother’s addiction and his attachment to Juan and Teresa is understandable, while his troubled relationship with schoolmate Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) is at times heartbreaking, while the sequences of high school bullying may ring true for many a viewer. When necessary, Jenkins keeps his camera still while the characters express themselves through halting dialogue and nominal body language, minimalist communication steeped in the cultural background that the film brings to such vivid life. Sex is underplayed in the film and yet sexuality, both nascent and repressed, imbues much of the cinematic texture, at all times handled with the utmost delicacy and restraint. Whether it picks up awards or not, Moonlight deserves to be remembered as an extraordinary film, a beautiful and exquisitely balanced exploration of identity, sexuality and belonging.

Searching for Salvation in all the Wrong Places – Part One

Boyle

Danny Boyle is one of Britain’s hottest directors right now, with the double whammy of winning an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire and the small matter of directing the Olympics opening ceremony. Whereas other high profile Brits often make the jump to Hollywood (yes, Christopher Nolan, I mean you), Boyle has continued to make home-grown films, shooting on location in London and at such venues as 3 Mills Studios. Furthermore, Boyle has maintained his distinctive approach to filmmaking, despite the grandeur of the Oscars and the Olympics. His most recent film, Trance, is a psychological thriller which focuses upon three characters, and looks to have the same visceral, gritty approach that he established in Shallow Grave and Trainspotting.

Boyle is a particular advocate of digital film, used to great effect in his Boyle’s foray into horror with 28 Days Later…. Shot on DV, 28 Days Later… tells the story of a Britain devastated by a virus that turns people into savage beasts, presented in a grainy image with an immediate, snatched quality. In the early scenes as Jim (Cillian Murphy) searches the eerie, deserted streets of London, the image has a tactile quality, drawing us further into Jim’s situation, feeling as well as seeing and hearing what he encounters. The processing of the image also feels underdone (though it almost certainly is not), which adds to the sense of immediacy.

The immediacy of the digital image expresses the down-to-earth level of the film as a whole. Although the film does not technically feature zombies, because the “Infected” are not dead, the post-apocalyptic tone of survivors holding onto existence owes much to the zombie film tradition, best demonstrated in the films of George A. Romero. Like Romero, Boyle’s non-zombie zombie film has political undertones, beginning with the opening shots that consist of news footage of violent acts: riots, police brutality, war. Presented on a series of screens before a laboratory chimpanzee, these initial images express humanity’s inhumanity, in contrast to the passive ape that is unaffected by the violence. This conceit runs through the whole film, as we are repeatedly shown the savagery and inhumanity of humans in a variety of forms.

The most obvious form of this inhumanity is, of course, the Infected, transformed by the Rage virus into rampaging beasts. Another form is the survivors, especially Selena (Naomie Harris), who has abandoned sympathy and compassion in favour of a ruthless survival wish, which she describes as willing to kill anyone infected “in a heartbeat”. Although initially dazed and confused, Jim eventually morphs into a savage creature himself, brutally killing an opponent (who is not Infected) by driving his thumbs into the other man’s eyes. Savagery is intrinsic in humans, the film suggests, all it takes is a little push.

Most interesting are the soldiers that Jim, Selena, Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and Hannah (Megan Burns) travel north to reach. Commanded by Major Henry West (Christopher Ecclestone), the soldiers imprison Selena and Hannah as concubines to repopulate the human race, believing that they are the last survivors. Just as the Infected are reduced to basic animal ferocity, so have the soldiers reverted to reproductive desire. Major West describes their situation in clinical terms, saying that his men feared they would simply die and that would be the end of humanity, so he “promised them women”. What is more revealing, though, is what West says about all the killing:

This is what I’ve seen in the four weeks since infection. People killing people. Which is much what I saw in the four weeks before infection, and the four weeks before that, and before that, and as far back as I care to remember. People killing people. Which to my mind, puts us in a state of normality right now.

In other words, the Rage has not made any major difference. His perspective indicates that whether Infected or not, people kill people. The film plays out this belief, as almost everyone kills at least once. The exception is the teenage Hannah, the innocent child, who Selena will do anything to protect, even drugging Hannah so that she is oblivious to the impending rape. 28 Days Later… is post-apocalyptic in the sense of being post-civilisation – as the Joker said: “When the chips are down, these ‘civilised’ people, they’ll eat each other”.

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The first time I saw 28 Days Later…, I thought the depravity of the soldiers was the first appearance of humanity’s inhumanity beyond the Infected, but on a second viewing I realised that the theme is there from the beginning (I missed the very opening first time around). The activists who break into the laboratory in the first scene see themselves as humanitarian by ending animal research that they view as torture. Equally, the scientists performing the experiments see their research as humanitarian. Nonetheless, the scientists have still harmed the chimps by infecting them with Rage, and the activists cause harm by ignoring the warnings the chimps. The scientist (David Schneider) urges the activists to kill the woman who is infected and then tries himself, demonstrating the swiftness with which “civilisation” is dropped. It is hardly surprising that civilisation becomes anarchy in just four weeks, if human savagery is awakened so easily. All that is left are random acts of kindness, such as Selena and Mark (Noah Huntley) rescuing Jim, Frank protecting Jim and Selena, Jim returning to the military headquarters to save Selena and Hannah.

What is especially interesting about the humanity that is left after the spread of Infection is where it is not found – as indicated in the title of this post, salvation is searched for in the wrong places. I use the term salvation deliberately, because the broadcast put out by Major West emphasises salvation, and his base turns out to be anything but. During Jim’s initial search of London, he goes into a church, presumably in search of salvation. Instead he finds the building filled with people, who initially seem dead (indeed, I wondered if there had been a mass suicide). But when he calls to them, they reveal themselves to be Infected. A priest emerges from a doorway and staggers towards Jim, who backs away before knocking the priest to the floor and running away. A church and an army base promising salvation prove to be dangerous, and there are various scenes that feature choral music reminiscent of church choirs. During the survivors’ journey from London to Manchester, they stop to rest at an old monastery, in one of the film’s few peaceful moments. There is little in the way of peace or mercy in Boyle’s blood-stained Britain, but a spiritual element nonetheless runs throughout 28 Days Later…

What we see in 28 Days Later… is a loss of the soul, humanity’s soul consumed by the Rage, reducing most of the population to bloodthirsty animals. For those who survive, the soul is ignored in the battle for survival. Selena’s lack of sympathy and compassion suggests a containment of her soul, which is weakened over the course of the film. Not that a weakening of her soul’s containment means Selena herself weakens – she remains strong and assertive throughout, if anything gaining further strength in her desire to protect Hannah and save Jim after he is shot. Jim never becomes as cold as her, providing the film’s only comic relief with blackly humorous comments about their situation. His discovery of West’s plans for Selena and Hannah leads to complete rejection of the soldiers, and West orders his death as well as that of Sergeant Farrell (Stuart McQuarrie). Farrell clings to some form of faith which prompts West to ask why Farrell joined the army in the first place, which Farrell does not answer. What place does faith have when we are abandoned? Although Jim does maintain sympathy in his compassionate quest to rescue the women, he still resorts to complete savagery in order to do so. Does he lose his soul as well, or is the soul somehow compatible with savagery? This is one of several spiritual questions the film poses.

Horror cinema is often used to express political, social and moral issues, such as consumerism in Dawn of the Dead, male fear of pregnancy in Alien, infection in Nosferatu. 28 Days Later… explores spiritual questions relating to the durability of the soul and where to find salvation. Institutions like the church and the army prove to be as savage as the world around them, salvation found only in individual compassion and sympathy. It is perhaps fitting that the message our heroes stretch over the grass at the end of the film says “HELLO” rather than “HELP” – Jim, Selena and Hannah are connected to each other, and reach out to make further connections with others.

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Review of 2012 Part Five – Great Expectations III: The Name’s, Well, You Know (Or Do You?)

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The penultimate hugely anticipated film of 2012 was the 23rd instalment in the world’s longest running film series, reaching a triumphant 50th year of James Bond, 007.  Skyfall carried not only the expectations of being a major blockbuster, and a franchise instalment, but it was also a landmark film which had to both honour what had come before and show the old dog had enough life for another 50 years.

 

Pedigree

There are several ways in which Skyfall met this challenge.  One of the most celebrated aspects of the film was its director, Sam Mendes.  The first Oscar winner to direct a James Bond film, Mendes brought a particular set of baggage with him.  Most successful with intimate personal dramas such as American Beauty, Revolutionary Road and Away We Go, Mendes’ forays into larger scale stories, such as Road to Perdition and Jarhead, were mediocre at best.  Skyfall would be his first franchise film and his first action film.  Despite Mendes’ prestige, the pedigree for a director like him was not promising, as Marc Foster is a director also known for more sedate fair than Bond, such as Monster’s Ball and Finding NeverlandQuantum of Solace was generally regarded as a failure, and the pressure was on for the 23rd film to return to the quality established in Casino Royale.

This quality brought with it further expectations, as Daniel Craig was being spoken of as the best Bond, even before the release of Skyfall.  After his lean, intense yet vulnerable turn gave Martin Campbell’s 2006 reboot something different, fresh and exciting, the failure of Quantum of Solace seemed something of an aberration.  Surely something had gone wrong and a Bond film featuring Craig should somehow be better.  I think Craig makes a very fine Bond, and the problems with Quantum of Solace mostly relate to the director.  Foster fails to give the film any suspense, as scenes go from a standstill to a breakneck pace, not allowing for build-up.  Foster’s skills are ill-suited to directing action sequences which, as I have written before, require tension that needs to be built up.  To have everyone suddenly burst out of their chairs and running like mad is too sudden a transition to allow any tension.

As an example, the first post-title sequence of Casino Royale is efficiently built up as Bond and his fellow agent Carter (Joseph Millson) watch their target in Madagascar, then move in towards him which increases the tension.  Then the scene accelerates into a chase with Bond heading after Mollaka (Sebastien Foucan) through all manner of obstacles, the famous free-running through a construction site, fighting on top of a very high crane and culminating in a running gun battle through an embassy.  This scene increases the stakes and in doing so raises the tension, whereas Bond chasing after Mitchell (Glenn Foster) in Quantum of Solace comes out of nowhere and, after the initial shock, the viewer is left disorientated and disengaged.

Mendes said in interviews that he was especially concerned about making the opening sequence memorable, as Bond has a distinguished history of opening sequences that grab the viewer’s attention.  Skyfall pulls this off impressively, as we begin in Istanbul with Bond slowly pursuing a stolen hard drive, then missing a shadowy figure in the corridor.  He meets with his fellow agent Eve (Naomie Harris) and there is a brief car chase culminating in a marketplace, which is followed by a motorcycle chase over the city rooftops.  From there the chase progresses onto a train, with Bond making use of a convenient earthmover and gets wounded, then the chase moves through the train itself and eventually on top of it, before Eve is ordered to “take the bloody shot!”  This line is significant, as it is the culmination of this sequence that is intercut with a parallel scene in London in which M (Judi Dench) barks instructions.  The intercutting between the chase and the supervision heightens the tension by raising the stakes, and the finale of the chase creates further anticipation for the rest of the film.

 

Acknowledgement

Even at this early stage, Skyfall is playing to the audience’s expectations, and throughout displays an acknowledgement of what the viewer wants to and also expects to see.  No viewer would believe that Bond is actually killed at the start of the film, and Skyfall understands the audience’s position as Bond’s re-appearance is hardly a revelation.  Rather, we get to enjoy Bond’s hedonistic retirement in a tropical paradise, and his shadowy re-introduction at M’s home.  Skyfall acknowledges the viewer’s expectations – this is a Bond film so he will come back at his own instigation – but also exceeds the expectation through the inclusion of Bond “enjoying death”, as well as the continued lively relationship he shares with M.

This is but one of many expectations that are rewarded, exceeded, and acknowledged.  Many moments in the film refer to Bond’s history, much as The World is Not Enough did with lines such as “I never joke about my work, 007” and the reappearance of gadgets from previous films.  Similar gags appear in Skyfall, such as Bond receiving his new gun, a Walther PPK, just as he was issued with in Dr No.  Similarly, in a moment that might as well have featured a wink direct to camera, Bond reveals his Aston Martin DB5, made famous in Goldfinger.  No explanation is given for him having this remarkable vehicle, which possesses a few modifications, and this is part of the fun – the film and the viewer share a smirk at the inclusion of this piece of nostalgia. Even Bond’s early “death” echoes You Only Live Twice, the viewer well aware that Bond cannot be killed at the start of the film, if indeed at all.

However, Skyfall retreats from excessive technology, at least as relates to Bond himself.  When issued with his gun, another smirk is shared between viewer and film as Q (Ben Wishaw) admonishes: “What did you expect?  An exploding pen?”  This is both contemporary and nostalgic, as over the years, Bond’s gadgets became increasingly outlandish, culminating in the invisible car of Die Another Day.  Pierce Brosnan’s last outing as 007 serves as a watershed in the franchise’s history, with the reboot Casino Royale acting as a return to a more gritty, “realistic” spy thriller.  Quantum of Solace continued the emphasis on physicality, and Skyfall develops this conceit further, continuing the trend for physicality and reliance upon one’s own wits and abilities.  Computer hacking gives way to machine guns and helicopters, then to jerry-rigged mines and pistols, and eventually to knives and unarmed combat.  A disdain for sophisticated technology is demonstrated in a repeated gag about the “latest in communications technology: a radio transmitter”.  At key moments, both Bond and his nemesis Silva (Javier Bardem) make reference to radio transmission, as if slapping the face of the computer boffin Q and his ilk.  When Q inadvertently plays into Silva’s hands through his expert hacking, Silva admonishes the younger man with the message “Not such a clever boy”, before all hell breaks loose.

Not that Silva is above using technology: his nefarious schemes necessitate a global reach that is facilitated through him being an expert hacker as well, allowing him to destabilise governments and attack MI6 headquarters.  But whereas previous Bond villains established their bases in volcano craters (You Only Live Twice, Goldeneye), undersea complexes (The Spy Who Loved Me) and even space stations (Moonraker), Silva’s lair is eerily simple: an abandoned city on an isolated island in the South China Sea, a ghost town that reinforces the almost supernatural influence that Silva enacts over the world.  The scene that introduces Silva is a master-class in minimalism, as the mise-en-scene is a crumbling building reminiscent of a church, filled with computer base units and a few screens.  This serves as a contrast to the steel and glass MI6 headquarters, a symbol of power that Silva easily infiltrates through his technological skills.  Visually, Silva’s introduction is stunning, as he emerges at the end of the long hall and steadily walks towards the camera in a continuous shot.  This long take further exacerbates the viewer’s anticipation for Silva to reach the foreground, while his silken tones echo through the cavernous space, emphasising our awareness as well as Bond’s that this is Silva’s domain.

Silva himself is a remarkable and impressive feature of Skyfall.  The most effective Bond villains have been those that serve as a dark reflection of Bond himself, such as Grant (Robert Shaw) in From Russia With Love and Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean) in Goldeneye.  With Silva the reflection is multi-faceted, as he is not only a (former) successful MI6 agent, who like Bond has officially “died”, his relationship with M is a twisted version of the one she has with Bond.  As in No Country For Old Men, Bardem delivers a thoroughly chilling performance of a genuine psychopath (despite a bizarre haircut): quiet, poised but with an evident relish, like a cobra that will smile as it strikes.  Also, he demonstrates a remarkable ability to get under Bond’s skin, as evidenced in the homoerotic encounter between the two as Silva unbuttons Bond’s shirt in a seductive manner.

Craig’s films have downplayed Bond’s seductive powers, which became tedious and even painful during the Moore years.  None of the last three films have ended with Bond in the arms of a lady lovely, and in Skyfall there are only a couple of such scenes.  This emphasises a different relationship that is central to the film, between Bond and M, as well as Silva.  Serving as the dark reflection of Bond, Silva is also coded as the bad son to Bond’s good son.  Bond’s bristly but ultimately devoted relationship with M provides the emotional core to Skyfall, personal dramas adding to the plot developments.

 

Nationality

As mentioned earlier, MI6 contrasts with Silva’s dilapidated headquarters, but there are different locations used by MI6.  After the grand offices on the Thames are attacked, they move underground into a back-up HQ built out of Churchill’s WWII bunker.  Thus begins the film’s concern with “Britishness”.  Curiously for the British Mendes, Skyfall was his first foray into presenting something British, and nationality remains prominent throughout Skyfall.  A key trope of the Bond franchise is exotic locations, which do appear including Istanbul, Bond’s “retirement” in the tropics and part of his mission that takes him to Shanghai and Macau, and from there to Silva’s island.  But afterwards, the film takes place entirely within Britain, and uses its locations to interesting effect.  Churchill’s bunker brings with it connotations of Britain under fire, and a chase takes place through the London Underground and into Westminster, with Silva disguised as a British copper.  The film’s final act involves going “back in time”, travelling into the highlands of Scotland to a stately home.  Both for Bond and for the film as a whole, the final act is a return to the past and to homeground, defending Britain against invasion.

Other tropes of “Britishness” appear: M has a china bulldog, decorated with a Union Jack, that becomes a talisman for Bond despite his dislike of it; Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), initially presented as an interfering Whitehall bureaucrat, is revealed to have a military history serving in Northern Ireland; Bond’s mission to Macau carries postcolonial connotations, the British agent exploring a former colony.  The past haunts Skyfall, both in its narrative and our understanding of it.  The past of the franchise itself explicitly returns when Bond enters M’s office, which is identical to the office of years gone by, visited by Sean Connery since 1962.  I always remembered the door with leather padding, and seeing it behind Daniel Craig was an interesting blend of the old and the new.  Clearly the blend of elements in Skyfall worked, as it has now become the highest grossing film ever at the British box office.

 

Inter-Textuality

The history of Bond was not the only reference I found in Skyfall.  In my last post on Looper, I commented on the inter-textual connections found in Rian Johnson’s film, as a central element in science fiction.  For all its elaborate technology, the Bond franchise is not science fiction, but it also reminded me of other films.  The Jason Bourne trilogy is an apparent influence on the reboot of James Bond, with a grittier approach and Daniel Craig constituting a more realistic and vulnerable spy protagonist in the mould of Matt Damon’s amnesiac assassin.  Specifically, Skyfall’s opening chase through Istanbul is reminiscent of The Bourne Ultimatum’s frantic dash through Tangiers, including our hero riding a motorcycle up a flight of stairs.  Bourne is not the only secret agent inspired by Bond and echoed in Skyfall, as a scene in which Bond moves through the London Underground, in constant communication with Q in a high-tech hub, is reminiscent of 24.  When Silva is brought into custody, he taunts Bond and M much like the Joker does Commissioner Gordon and Batman in The Dark Knight, and like the Joker, Silva is both psychotic and physically deformed, as revealed when he extracts a prosthetic mouthpiece to reveal his true features in Skyfall’s most gruesome moment.  Silva’s taunting of M also echoes The Silence of the Lambs, perhaps very deliberately.  As in The Dark Knight and also The Avengers, Silva’s imprisonment is a ruse and all part of his master plan, a narrative trope that may well continue.  John McClane has been described as a blue collar James Bond, and the final attack on Bond’s family home, Skyfall, features a highly organised assault team against a resourceful individual who uses his surroundings to his advantage, much like in Die Hard.  To take it even further, Bond defends his home using homemade devices, not unlike Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone – not a comparison I ever thought I’d make!

 

Gender

One aspect of Skyfall troubles me: the reassertion of classic Bond tropes brings with it some disturbing gender politics.  Since Goldeneye, the Bond franchise has taken some steps to distance itself from Bond being “a sexist misogynist dinosaur”, as M argued in Brosnan’s first outing.  Tougher Bond girls have made appearances, such as Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh) in Tomorrow Never Dies, Jinx (Halle Berry) in Die Another Day and Camille (Olga Kurylenko) in Quantum of SolaceSkyfall features Eve, who is Bond’s fellow agent in Istanbul and Macau, and with whom he appears to have a romantic liaison (though we’re spared the details).  Eve is a competent field agent, but come the final scene, she is relegated to a secretary and revealed to be M’s eternal assistant, Moneypenny.  This is another wink to the Bond fan, but also implies that secretary is the correct role for a woman.  M’s fate implies this further, and the final occupant of the office seems a reassertion of patriarchy, as though the franchise has returned to where it belongs with men in the positions of power and agency.  This is a disturbing element in a film aware of its legacy, especially in light of the potentially progressive amendments taken since 1995.  Skyfall’s conclusion appears to suggest that the Bond franchise is not a place for women except in traditional roles.

 

Best Ever?

Despite this disconcerting reassertion of patriarchy, I enjoyed Skyfall immensely.  It was gripping and thrilling, well-plotted with detailed characters, exercised a knowing acknowledgement with the viewer to just the right extent, therefore avoiding being too clever-clever, and looked stunning.  Some have described Skyfall as the best Bond ever, and while I think it is too early to say, it is certainly the most beautiful, as Roger Deakins’ digital cinematography looked deep and rich enough to swim in.  Digital filming has been growing steadily in recent years, and Skyfall is a film that makes full use of its possibilities.  There were points during the film when I wanted shots to linger on the myriad of colours captured in the frame, especially during a sequence in Shanghai.  This sequence features one of the strangest fight scenes I have seen in a film, as Bond and his opponent move with a fluid grace within the shimmering beauty of the digital image.  Alternately silhouetted and illuminated by shifting light patterns, the hand-to-hand combat becomes an almost dream-like dance, perhaps a microcosm of the dance of light and shadow that is cinema itself.  This level of visual invention permeates the film, especially apparent in the climax, when the Scottish moors are illuminated by a deep red, casting an almost hellish yet still beautiful hue over the film’s finale.

Silva sends M a message that reads “Think on your sins”, and the themes of atonement and redemption reach fullest expression during the final sequence on the moors.  Not only is the scene bathed in hellish red light, it also features Bond struggling with an opponent beneath the ice of a frozen loch, sinking deeper out of sight.  Bond’s emergence from the water adds to the sense of a lone warrior battling the legions of hell, while in a church M awaits her fate.  Her fate genuinely surprised and moved me, and I was left wondering whether M achieved redemption or damnation in the end.  Much like Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, Skyfall does not end triumphantly for our hero.  It does conclude with Bond ready to get back to work, but it also possesses a profound ambiguity and sober ambivalence.  For a Bond film to offer such ambiguity is genuinely surprising and impressive, enabling Skyfall to excel not only as a Bond film, but as a film in general, one of the most satisfying of 2012.  I have previously written about expectations and how they influence our responses: with Skyfall I expected a good Bond film, but not a film that worked on so many levels and exceeded my expectations narratively, aesthetically and thematically.  The blend of familiarity and innovation in Skyfall surpassed the (expected) pleasures of The Avengers, Prometheus, The Dark Knight Rises and Looper, providing one of the most satisfying cinema experiences I had in the past twelve months.