SKYFALL: a bit of a downer

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Spoiler Alert

Skyfall   I have mixed feelings about Skyfall, the new James Bond film directed by Sam Mendes (American Beauty).

Since 1963’s Dr. No, and until the current set of three (Casino Royale, Quantum of Silence and Skyfall), Bond films have given audiences beautiful people, cities most of us will never see, and fantasy. Evil geniuses hatched outlandish plots to rule the world, requiring ridiculous amounts of money, often wagered in elegant casinos full of tuxes and evening gowns, up-dos and bow-ties.

There was always a seduction, with Bond making love to a dangerous goddess-like bad girl.

He would growl and of course, she stretched and purred as the music crescendo-ed. Then, there was the action, involving Secret Agent gadgets, long stretches of chases, fights, dodges and jumps moving through exotic streets and narrow alleys crowded by costumed extras. All of it was played out by vivid characters, whose barely there emotions let us thrill to the stunt because we owed them no empathy when they met their cinematic ends.

We expected dreamy, gleaming surfaces that offered an occasional flash of something darker, a secret, a hint of the forbidden. Or at least we did until the last few with a new Bond, and a new kind of Bond.

James Bond has become emotionally complicated. Now he has a past. There’s still some fantasy. The chases, as always, are entertaining, but the convoluted plot, takes us to all those far away places for show, and they have little to do with what is at the heart of the Skyfall plot–betrayal and abandonment of both Bond and the bad guy, Silva, by “M,” whose cold pragmatism allows her to apply the cost/benefit dynamic to those who serve the Crown so valiantly. The resulting blow-back (literally) is caused by Bond’s seeming death and Silva’s (Javier Bardem) transformation from a dedicated agent to a relentless enemy.

Underneath M’s steely professionalism there’s a maternal caring that both Bond and Silva perceive.

And that makes her betrayal and abandonment of each all the more painful–a pain we the audience can see and understand. No more mere glimpses of dark secrets, we learn of the sacrifices both men make and it makes us and them question M’s decisions.

And so I was never sure how to feel.

Javier Bardem, as usual, was the best thing in the movie. Daniel Craig is growing on me. I’d had my heart set on Clive Owen for the new Bond, but Craig has this battered charm that works. I wonder if the scripts are going to get even darker in tone, sort of in keeping with the reality of the world today. If so, the character may be named Bond, but he will no longer be the same tuxedo-ed hero we knew. I did like Judi Dench’s “M.” Along with the crisp manner, she brought a light humor to the more recent Bond offerings, before they became so dark. Sorry to lose Judi Dench, (if you’ve made this far, I hope you took the spoiler alert seriously), but Ralph Fiennes can send me on a mission any time.

The script could have been way tighter. I did like the youth versus age and experience theme., but I found myself wanting to keep Bond a mystery.

I hope they can find a way back to that cool spy and lover we found so irresistible, the man who was unknowable.

As director Kevin DiNovis, recently commented, “There’s a place in the world yet for exploding pens and volcano lairs.”

I agree, but perhaps that place lies in the “discovered country” of the movies that spoke to who we were–moviegoers relishing a new world that was breaking away from the rules of the past and we were breathless at the idea of all that glamor and sex. Change has sped up and it’s a little disconcerting.

We may not be able to jettison the past so easily now.

For the time being, I’ll look for the gleam in those Arctic- blue Ralph Feinnes eyes and the steely pale blue gaze of Craig’s as the new “M” sends 007 out to save the world again.

Ah the mysteries behind those sexy blue eyes. In the next Bond film, I hope they reveal a secret formula or two.

 

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Spector: The spy who came in from the old

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Spectre: A review

SPOILER ALERT!

spectre I’ve never been much of a James Bond fan, though as far as I can tell, I’ve seen every Bond movie soon after its release, including Spectre. As I mentioned in my review of Skyfall, the early Sean Connery movies were thrilling. Every exotic locale, the delicate dance of the gambling dens, where everyone was evil, but oh so glamorous, transported our sixties humdrum selves into a world of vivid, cinematic sin and women with big hair and funny names. The sex scenes faded at just the right moment. No morning mouth, snarled hair-do or wince of regret spoiled it.

Spectre, the newest Bond film, is an entertaining film with an impressive opening sequence.

We’re in Mexico and from a Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) parade, a man appears among the celebrants. He wears a skull mask and holds hands with a beautiful senorita. As we follow him and he removes the death mask, we see that he is 007. The death mask is fitting since in this film, Bond is labeled a professional assassin. He leads the woman to a prearranged room and they begin making love. Then he seems to change his mind. Exiting through a window, he tells her he’ll be right back. He never returns. Instead he chases and kills a bad guy, and during some truly impressive helicopter stunts, he almost takes out half of the parade people.

Later at London headquarters, and back from “vacation,” Bond is in trouble.

The new “M” (Ralph Fiennes is one of the best things in the movie) suspends him for the unauthorized “hit.” The “license to kill” program is being phased out in favor of a new international surveillance conglomerate headed by “C” (Andrew Scott—Moriarty to Cumberbatch’s Holmes). “C” is a smarmy passive aggressive bureaucrat, a drab harbinger of all things “spy” in the changing world. “C” is the new reality and “M’ is the past, a theme carried over from Skyfall. Not every millennial is on board with the change. “Q” (Ben Whishaw) still believes in the program and happily creates all the fun cars and gadgets, giving Bond access, even after Bond has been suspended. Why did 007 defy his orders this time?

We discover the answer when a concerned Moneypenny visits James Bond’s pitiful apartment to find out the real reason Bond was in Mexico.

Like Moneypenny, we’re not impressed by Bond’s totally un-groovy pad. There’s no movie décor; nothing “goes” with the couch, and the flat screen TV sits on the floor. When it comes to interior design, 007, the embodiment of all things glamorous, has no taste. Why does this matter? The movie’s portrayal of Bond’s personal life doesn’t match the fantasy of the older Bond films. Times have changed and perhaps, the disarray is the point, hinting at the conflict created by his service to Queen and country that is within James.   The smooth outer ‘60’s Bond, a man whose freedom, the “license to kill” included plenty of  sin, but little guilt.

When I thought about it, which was almost never, I assumed that the place this enigmatic spy called home was likely a den of solitude like Superman’s fortress. And no women allowed (except the cleaning lady; 007 wouldn’t vacuum or make beds). Discovering the ordinariness of the Bond residence is like finding out there is no Santa. Once the bubble’s burst, there’s a new perspective (Spectre?) of Bond. This new view extends to his treatment of women, which changed as the film went on. He deserted the senorita with no apology, and after protecting a grieving widow by killing her assassins, he comforted her by ripping off her clothes (she helped). Then he goes home, unrepentant. When M (Fienne) suspends him, something changes. There’s weariness in 007’s eyes. In fact rather than shrugging off commitment, he becomes territorial. He pouts when he discovers Moneypenny had an overnight visitor that’s not him. “That’s life,” Moneypenny chides. So it is.

James explains his actions by clicking on the TV. A posthumous message from M, assigns him a mission. The woman who haunts James is not Pussy Galore, but “M” (Judy Dench). In Skyfall, M emerged as a mother figure for both James and his foe, an embittered agent. Her willingness to sacrifice them for the good of the Crown cut deep.

As in Skyfall, more than world domination, Bond’s past drives the plot in Spectre. These issues continue in the form of Blofeld, played by Christoph Waltz, an interesting actor, though the smirk is wearing thin. The scene introducing Blofeld as a man to be feared is masterfully done, using protocol and whispers and ending in a gruesome murder. Blofeld’s connection to Bond is what drives Blofeld’s thirst for revenge. He has a childhood score to settle, and he’s determined to murder all the important women in Bond’s life, including M. Like all Bond villains, Blofeld is a psychopath.

“M’s(Dench) posthumous assignment leads to Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux, an appealing French actress). A psychiatrist specializing in talk therapy, Swann is the daughter of a dying bad guy, who begged Bond to save her from her father’s enemies. Bond agrees, but Ms Swann isn’t grateful. She can take care herself, thank you very much. Of course, she’s promptly kidnapped. He rescues her, but she’s still not with the program, though she does lead him to the next clue. It seems that Blofeld and “C” are in cahoots. Surprised?

There’re more betrayals, helicopter stunts and rescues before the movie’s end. There’s also something different. Bond decides to give it all up for Madeleine, a woman who cannot tolerate the world of her father. 007 has done this in other films and the future Mrs. Bond always ended up dead, leaving James newly available. This time, she survives and they walk away together. Bond seems sick of it all. But can this leopard change his spots, never to engage the deadly sleek glamour of the games, the adrenaline of the jungles, the seething volcanoes of life and death? Will he give up the miracle cars, suitcases with secret compartments, and exploding watches? Will he miss the sultry, double-dealing women, the rescuing of grieving widows? It seems this Bond can leave it all.

 Craig said Spectre was to be his last Bond film, a character he described as misogynistic, though recently, I read that he has agreed to do another. The world has changed since the days of Mad Men, when Ian Fleming’s smooth spy was unstoppable. Thanks for the memories, but spies now operate in a more complex, more inclusive world. A more human Bond might be a better fit.

Maybe the next Bond should be more like Richard Burton’s character in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Maybe it’s time Bond did too.