Monthly Archives: February 2013

SKYFALL is the Worst James Bond Movie in a Long, Long Time — and Here’s Why…

Bond Fire

SKYFALL has had a weird, strange ride. Now, it’s considered one of the best Bond films ever, revolutionizing the character and the way we think about the series. I’m here to tell you that these people wrong — I’m glad that they are excited about James Bond, but under SKYFALL’s polish and sheen lies one of the stupidest Bond movies since the Pierce Brosnan era.  If you want to know why, skip down to the spoilers section.

The James Bond series was creatively flailing in the early 2000’s. The Pierce Brosnan-starring franchise had just released DIE ANOTHER DAY, a movie that featured a cameo and theme song by Madonna, a Korean man that undergoes genetic reconstruction therapy to appear caucasian and assume another life, and more giant satellites that can shoot lasers. Even though DIE ANOTHER DAY was the highest grossing Bond film of all time, it was ridiculous. The movie was almost a self-aware parody of all the things that Bond had notoriously become since the Roger Moore days in the 1980’s: unrealistic technology that functions as magic, women throwing themselves at Bond, groan inducing puns and innuendos, and the tortured, theatrical villain. Even Roger Moore had this to say: “I thought it just went too far – and that’s from me, the first Bond in space! Invisible cars and dodgy CGI footage? Please!”

It was time to start over. It was time to bring James Bond back to his roots: no more otherworldly gadgets, no more zany special effects, no more theatrical villains. James Bond was coming back to Earth after spending two decades in Hollywood, so to speak. CASINO ROYALE presented a “reboot” of the series. The movie stripped Bond down to his basics, and he had to use his wits and muscle to overcome his obstacles, not a watch that could shoot lasers out of it. The film succeeded: it was a hit with audiences and critics alike. No longer was James Bond just a guilty pleasure, he was downright cool. For as different as CASINO ROYALE was, it featured the director of GOLDENEYE and the writers of DIE ANOTHER DAY and THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH. The franchise was using the same people, but the results were very, very different.

The follow up, QUANTUM OF SOLACE, was directed by Marc Forster. By adding Forster to the helm of the movie, the landscape of James Bond may now be forever changed. Forster was the first dramatic director to be brought on board to direct on a Bond movie. After directing a series of hits (Monster’s BallFinding Neverland, and Stranger than Fiction), Forster was an in-demand director.  Instead of picking up any other dramatic vehicle for his next movie, he chose Bond — a franchise normally known for its action.  Quantum of Solace did well at the box-office, but it was somewhat of a disaster.  Meant to be a direct continuation of the storyline (and tone) that began in Casino Royale, production on the movie began right as the writer’s strike started up proper.  The crew was left without a writer, so what could they do?  Could they just make up stuff on the spot and try to wing it?  Probably not, that would be a terrible idea — but that’s what they did anyways.

Although Quantum of Solace was a hit at the box office (for the first few weeks), it killed a lot of the excitement that Casino Royale commanded.  James Bond’s momentum was stalled, and making matters worse, production company MGM fell on hard times.  With MGM bankrupt, plans for what was called “Bond 23” were put on an indefinite hold.  After a few months, Bond 23‘s production restarted when MGM was pulled out of their financial woes, but this time, the director at the helm of the movie was Sam Mendes.  Mendes, like Forster, was a dramatic director.  In fact, Sam Mendes’ career as a filmmaker was heavily influenced by his stint in theater — his movies are characterized by character-based tension, melodrama, and theatricality.  These elements sounds like they would make a great Bond film, right?  The internet rebelled at the idea that Mendes, the director of American Beauty, Away We Go,  and Revolutionary Road would directing the next Bond film*.  To some degree it makes sense — if this new revamped Bond franchise is a response to the Die Another Day-era movies, why not pick up an Oscar winning drama director instead of the guy that directed xXx: State of the Union, and Nic Cage’s Next?

Bond Silva

Any qualms that the internet/fans had about Mendes were squashed upon the release of the trailer for Skyfall.  The initial teaser trailer shows a burned out Bond being given a word-association test and a sampling of some of Roger Deakins fantastic cinematography set to heavy percussion.  It’s hard not to get excited by the trailer, and it reinvigorated people’s hopes that there would be another Casino Royale-esque movie after Quantum of Solace.  Adding to the excitement was rumors of Javier Bardem’s turn as a villain, a theme song by Adele, and more fantastic previews.  When the movie was released, it seems that we had all been wrong: Sam Mendes directed one of the best Bond films of all time.  The movie was dramatic, introspective, and suspenseful.  It looked great, it sounded great, and all of the actors/actresses are great in it.  Audiences and critics loved Skufall, and many championed the movie as a turning point for a new era of the Bond franchise.

I’m here to say that all of these people are wrong.  Skyfall is not only a bad Bond film, but it’s one of the most overhyped movies of 2012/2013.  Skyfall‘s flaws can be divided into two distinct category: tone and plot.

Spoilers for Skyfall below.  Read at your own peril!

Tone:
It is established early on in Skyfall that this is going to be a dramatic, suspenseful, serious movie.  It also aims to capture the same realism that made Casino Royale so promising: Bond was a flawed character, and he was capable of making mistakes.  However, the movie is woefully inconsistent with how it treats its serious tone.  For example, early in the movie, Bond rips the back off of a train car, and he runs and jumps inside the moving car as the entire back is sheared off, barely making it, of course.  What does he immediately do?  He adjusts his cufflinks.  Sure, this looks really cool in action, but is it realistic?  No.  Is it something we would expect from Daniel Craig’s portrayal of Bond?  No.  The Bond that Skyfall thinks it is portraying is a serious, headstrong guy that uses his wits and muscle to overcome.  Adjusting his cufflinks after narrowly pulling off a stunt like that belongs in the Roger Moore canon, at best.  Also, Bond springboards off the back of an angry Komodo dragon in a later escapade.  You read that right.

Bond Train

Javier Bardem’s portrayal of the rogue agent/villain/mastermind/hacker is fun to watch, but it sinks back into the pre-Casino Royale theatricality of Bond villains.  When Austin Powers lampooned diabolically over-the-top villains, it was a send-up of characters like Bardem’s Silva.  Audiences have praised Bardem’s portrayal for the slight-homosexual tendencies he displays around Bond.  That’s something we’ve never seen, right?  Comedian James Adomian has an 8-minute long bit about ridiculous gay villains in movies.  It’s something that we’ve seen before.  Over and over again.  All that Silva is missing is a fluffy cat to stroke while he chews scenery and spouts out his plans.  (http://www.thecomedybureau.com/post/5223651050/jamesadomian-my-gay-villains-bit-live-at).  Additionally, Silva’s plan is, at best, completely convoluted.  When looking at his plans as a whole, the lengths that Silva goes through strains any credulity for a James Bond villain.  Now, Bond villains are often ridiculous (see Christophen Walken in A View to a Kill), but this movie is supposed to be serious and realistic, right?  (see below for specifics on Silva’s plot).  Of course, all of this can be substituted with the following words: he owns a secret, island headquarters.

Other times, the film isn’t as clever or surprising as it believes it is.  For example, the Bond franchise callbacks are completely groan-worthy.  When Bond’s quartermaster says “Call me Q,” it feels as if everyone in the cast has stopped what they’re doing, turned towards the audience, and gave a wink.  Even more, when Q cracks a joke that he can’t offer anything as technologically zany as an “exploding pen”, he’s making a callback to past film Goldeneye.  Again, it feels as if everyone stops and gives a giant wink.  You see — you, the audience — you get the joke!  It’s self-aware, and isn’t that funny?  Later in the movie when Moneypenny and (the new) M are introduced, it’s a similar feeling.  The movie feels way too proud of itself for drawing these connections back to the old Bond franchise.  These moments intentionally take the audience out of the narrative.

Plot:
Skyfall is completely and utterly filled with plot holes.  Silva is a mastermind that can apparently do everything.  He’s a smooth talker and a master of: espionage, counter-intelligence, weaponry, technology, information system, game theory.  He’s also very athletic for someone who swallowed a cyanide pill (destroying his inner intestinal tract).  Silva is a man of simple needs though, all he wants to do is kill M.  Should be easy enough for a certified genius, right?

Here’s his plan: steal a list of all the undercover secret agents in Europe/Asian (because there is a complete list out there on one device) so that M will come under heavy scrutiny and lose her job.  As this happens, he will blow up her office.  Not to kill her, of course (which is his master plan), but to shake her up and move MI-6 underground into the sewers.  Silva knew this would happen — he knew that in an emergency, M would retreat underground to the sewers even though he’s been off the coast of Shanghai, China for, I don’t know, years and years now.  Doing this drastic measure would mean that MI-6 would try to stop him from continuing to blow stuff up and reveal all of the undercover spies’ identities that he stole.  Silva doesn’t release all the names at once though, of course — this is never quite understood why, but I’m sure he has a reason because he is a genius.

Bond Shanghai

Bond comes out of retirement, goes to Shanghai, kills people, falls in love, springboards off the back of a komodo dragon, and picks up the trail to this mysterious asshole that is causing so much trouble in England.  Turns out Silva planned on Bond picking up the trail and finding him.  He planned on it, and on Bond to come with some kind of tracking device so that MI-6 would rescue Bond/capture Silva.  The folks at MI-6 would obviously bring Silva right to M rather than torture the shit out of him or kill him.  Turns out, this was all a really complicated way for Silva to see M again.  He wanted to see her and speak with her one last time before he killed her.  I’m sure what he had to say was important, otherwise he would have blown up her office when he (somehow) had it rigged with explosives.

But!  Back to the point: Silva wanted to be captured.  But!  He also knew that by blowing up M’s office, he would be housed underground in the sewers.  Good thing, because the sewers are nicely connected to the subway systems too.  How does he get out of British-spy-jail, anyways?  He has some kind of device that is super, ultra, hacker-elite encrypted.  Luckily Q can figure out the encryption process, because it sets off some magic signal that allows Silva to escape through the sewers.  Bond, being the steadfast agent that he is, gives pursuit to Silva, who plans to attack a court hearing with his men — I’m not sure how Silva was able to time all this out (because it depends on Q decrypting his algorithm on the right day, at the right hour.  Oh, right, he’s a mastermind.

So, anyways, Bond is giving chase to Silva, and he almost catches up to him.  Luckily, Silva is clever, and he changes into the uniform of a policeman, and with Bond off the trail, he picks the nearest door to escape to.  Bond, realizes the door wasn’t properly shut, walks through the door, finding Silva climbing up a ladder.  However, Silva planned on Bond to almost lose his scent, only to actually find the right door that he escaped through in a crowded subway platform.  How do we know?  He had explosives set.  Keep in mind, for him to set explosives, this would all have to be done before Silva even escaped British-spy-jail, so he knew that Bond (or someone) would give him chase all the way to this point (even though it looked like Silva fortuitously chose that door because he had the chance).  Silva detonates the explosives, but nothing seems to happen — UNTIL we realize that he perfectly timed all of this to coincide with a subway train’s path, hurtling directly towards the gaping hole now in the wall.  For Silva’s escape, he planned on the subway train to be coming along this path — he even planned his monologue around it.

Silva

The lengths that Silva goes through to do all this is mindboggling.  In the moment, all of this feels right — it doesn’t feel ridiculous until looking at it in hindsight.  The disgraced agent Silva may be some kind of super genius mastermind, able to plot ahead months in advance, down to the subway’s scheduling, but he’s not practical.  If he wanted to get rid of M, he had the explosives set up in her office.  If he wanted to get rid of M after he spoke to her, he could have set up his encrypted device to contain an explosive.  It’s all needlessly convoluted, and it’s characteristic of something Dr. Evil would do.  This is the villain of Die Another Day who undergoes genetic reconstruction treatment to become a caucasian military officer so that he can get his hands of a laser-blasting satellite and take out the Korean DMZ.  This is not the villain of the “realistic” Bond franchise.

Aside from Raoul Silva, criminal and deranged mastermind, there are few weird things going on with James Bond himself.  He dies within the first 15 minutes of the movie.  He’s shot with a high caliber rifle in the chest, he plummets, 100+ feet into a deep river, and he sinks straight to the bottom.  After the audience is distracted by Adele’s rendition of the theme song, we seem Bond hanging out in… Cuba?… drinking a lot and soaking up the sun.  There’s no explanation of what happens in the interim, how he was brought back to life (surely no one/thing could survive that event), or how he ends up wherever it is here is.  Additionally, Bond’s trip to Shanghai and subsequent love interest add almost nothing to the movie (other than some gorgeous back drops) or narrative.   Apparently it wouldn’t be a Bond movie without a woman (or two, I see what you’re up to Moneypenny) falling in love with him.

Bond Girl

Conclusion:
I don’t mean to say that Skyfall is a downright terrible movie, but it’s a dumb one that is dressed up in smart clothes.  The movie was written by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, who have written previous Bond movies, so it makes sense to some degree that the movie would feel like one of the Pierce Brosnan-era films.  Roger Deakins’ cinematography is really excellent, and with the exception of a few scenes, he makes Skyfall one of the best looking movies of the year.  There are cool action scenes, some suspenseful moments, some cool character development — just don’t think about it for too long.

*Mendes also directed Road to Perdition, an excellent and overlooked movie that does have a few action beats.  I didn’t include that in the paragraph, because hey, I’m trying to make a point here, right?

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Atoms for Peace: AMOK

 

AMOK Atoms for PeaceThis record has been a long time coming. Atoms for Peace initially began when (Radiohead’s) Thom Yorke took his solo record on tour. The band’s sound adopted a good deal from Yorke’s solo album THE ERASER: it’s sometimes paranoid, sometimes jittery, sometimes claustrophobic. If Yorke’s name wasn’t enough, Atoms for Peace sure has the pedigree of a great band: (The Red Hot Chili Peppers’) Flea commands the bass, (Ultraista and Radiohead’s producer) Nigel Godrich plays guitar, (Ultraista and Beck) drummer Joey Waronker provides half of the percussion with Mauro Refosco laying down most of the electronic beats. The band’s music is an interesting mix of electronic and material music, a nd it is often hard to tell where the real percussion stops and the electronic percussion begins.

Some of this material is pretty old, and band members have hinted that they have been sitting on it for a while now before its release. “Judge, Jury, and Executioner” was debuted in 2009 (it shares no relation with the similar Radiohead song). AMOK was created within a handful of days – the writing process for the band started with all musicians in the studio, free-form jamming without creating “takes” or stopping. Afterwards, the hours of material that they created was gleaned through, and the members picked out parts they thought were particularly interesting or beautiful. This makes for a great academic exercise, but what about a great music-listening experience?

The problem with AMOK is also its strength. The album is concerned primarily with being interesting: achieving new sounds, creating strange transitions, using instrumentation in different ways. The chief concern here is not the listener. Many of these songs are pleasant, but they often lack the melody that will keep you coming back for more. It reminds me a good deal of Radiohead’s last record, THE KING OF LIMBS, which was often jittery and songs sometimes lacked a clear throughline. Now, of course, all music doesn’t need to be a verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/chorus traditional song, but the real joy of AMOK comes from approaching the music in a cerebral way. This isn’t good background music, but it is good music to find yourself in if you’re willing to. If you are a listener that appreciates the way music is put together, there’s a lot on this record that you may find of intrigue.

It’s hard not to compare this Atoms for Peace record in the grand scale of Radiohead/Thom Yorke projects – in many ways, it is truly its own beast. Even though there will be plenty of sounds that you’ve heard before in past records, there’s enough new stuff here to keep listeners guessing and interested. The album opens with “Before Your Very Eyes,” and it’s a perfect example of what listeners are in for: the song begins with a shaky guitar-riff that twists and turns into an electronic sound, and it’s heard to distinguish when one sound ceases and another begins – there’s so much going on, so many layers, that you can pick up on new pieces with each listen. “Dropped” gives a stuttering synth that opens up over Mauro Refosco’s percussion. “Unless” sounds like a cut from Yorke’s THE ERASER. Some songs never really quite congeal: “Reverse Running,” “Judge, Jury, and Executioner,” and “Ingenue” generally stick with a musical idea throughout their duration, but they seem to be AMOK’s weakest tracks.

Overall, AMOK didn’t hit all of the right spots for me. It’s a good record, and it’s definitely worth a listen, but it’s hard for me to believe that someone would opt for this over Flying Lotus, or other Radiohead albums. If you’re looking for a good electronic band inspired by Afrobeat, I would recommend Joey Waronker & Nigel Godrich’s other band, Ultraista. Ultraista is a bit more accessible, and a bit more poppy; it may not be as interesting, but it’s a more enjoyable record for my money.

Songs to sample/download: “Default”, “Before Your Very Eyes”, “Stuck Together Pieces.”

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